Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill in Honolulu primed for Takeoff

May 24, 2018
Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill in Honolulu primed for Takeoff
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When you have a captive audience, there’s not much incentive to improve your game, and for decades, that’s the way travelers have felt about airport restaurants. Their reputation has been of bland, dull fare that lags years behind what’s happening on the streets.

At Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, chef Andy Ocetnik Jr. of HMS Host, which operates more than 40 dining concepts on-site, is out to change that perception. Airport restaurants represent the “last frontier” of elevated dining that has hit every other sector, Ocetnik said, including grocery stores and fast-food outlets.

For the goal-oriented chef charged with overseeing HMS Host restaurants in the Honolulu, Kahului and Lihue airports, improving the reputation of the airport is a challenge where the sky’s the limit.

“When you’re starting on the ground floor, there’s a lot of room for growth,” Ocetnik said. “This has been long overdue. Nobody should have to eat bad food. I want people to be excited about eating at the airport, rather than dread it.

“I want people to be surprised by what’s happening here. It’s a great personal challenge to bring the airport up to speed to what’s going on outside. We have a lot of concepts coming in the next 10 years. You’re gonna see a lot of development.” To start, Makai Plantation opened last year, as did Sammy’s Beach Bar &Grill, the latter as a joint venture of HMS Host, GRL Corp. and Rock &Roll Hall of Famer Sammy Hagar.

Sammy’s focuses on such approachable and sunny beach-meets-Tex Mex fare such as Baja-style beer-battered ahi tacos ($18), fish and chips ($24), Red Rockin’ Haleakala Wings ($14), the juicy bacon and guac-topped Sammy’s Beach Burger ($18.50) and an excellent kalua pork Cubano ($18.50). The bar is home to Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Tequila and Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, used in the restaurant’s signature Mint Macadamia Mule. Another reason to eat there? Hagar donates all his proceeds from the restaurant to the local children’s charity HUGS (Help, Understanding &Group Support), through the Hagar Family Foundation.

HMS Host’s marketplace concept, Leahi Plantation, is scheduled to open later this year in the Diamond Head Concourse Terminal. Before joining HMS Host, Ocetnik worked with celebrity chef Todd English at his various restaurants up and down the East Coast, before becoming executive chef at English’s Olives at Atlantis Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas. He also spent a decade at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort &Spa. Taking on the airport challenge has “been more fun than difficult,” he said. “I can take all experience in fine dining and have fun bringing in better ingredients, focusing on the local.

The emphasis is on quality and value. “At the domestic and international gates, every flight is going to be a minimum of five hours so we want our food to be satisfying and relieve some of the anxiety of travel.” Improving the fare will also boost the company’s bottom line. “We worry about all the same things as a street-side restaurant, plus we’re in an environment where everything is fast. People are moving quickly so we’ve got only a short time to capture them and a short time to keep them here,” Ocetnik said.

Through the end of May, which HMS Host has designated Airport Restaurant Month, the Honolulu airport joins 80 others across North America offering menus highlighting avocados. Participating in Hono­lulu’s dining event are Makai Plantation, Umaizushi, PGA Tour Grill and Stinger Rays. Diverse offerings range from four teishoku menus at Umaizushi, to pulled-pork tacos and avocado banh mi ($17) at Makai Plantation. Of course, if you happen to fall in love with the food, the bummer is that you can only get it if you either work at the airport or are traveling.

A couple of dishes I wish we could have on the outside are that banh mi accented with cucumber, carrot, cilantro and mint, and Makai Plantation’s roast salmon ($20) with plenty of value extras on the plate, such as sauteed arugula and mushrooms, a doubling up on the greens with a crunchy slaw, and hummus with olives and pita points. Both represented aha! moments. I shy away from spending money when I assume the outcome will be disappointing, so at the airport I’ve always found it better to go with what’s known, and gravitate to Burger King if I happen to get hungry before boarding. I’ve been so focused on getting my Whopper Jr. to the gate on time that I never noticed that Burger King opens to the sushi bar Umaizushi, which serves donburi and noodle bowls, including a crab ramen ($16) that I need to try at a later date.

For now, there is that quartet of teishoku specials with avocado. The $20 sets include miso soup, salad with avocado, white rice, kim chee- avocado relish and an entree choice of shrimp tempura, lacquered sockeye salmon, seared ginger beef or a sushi combination of ahi, hamachi, sake and ebi. The tempura is the most popular, contemporized with a drizzling of spicy mayo and sweet unagi sauce in place of the usual accompaniments of dipping sauce and grated daikon. Ocetnik said he has listened to customer complaints and suggestions that hit on every street trend, resulting in more vegetarian and gluten-free options, and always making sure good burgers abound. “We gotta have that option. It’s a crowd-pleaser, the No. 1 choice of customers.”

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Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill in Honolulu primed for Takeoff
Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill in Honolulu primed for Takeoff