Moonfish (Hawaiian opah) is a pretty critter with flashing rainbows of opalescent skin when it’s alive, a scuba diver’s darling. When I tasted it a few years ago, fresh caught and cooked to tenderly translucent (not opaque) at a Honolulu seafood restaurant, it was a rare treat — but like its compatriot ono (or “oh, no!” as some local chefs call it), it seems to lose a lot in transit. Here, the faintly smoky garlic crust, with a butter sauce flavored with vanilla and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine), sounded pretty to the palate, along with accompaniments of baby spinach and wasabi mashed potatoes (the latter proving very lean, with just a tiny wasabi kick) — but the precious fish was cooked through to relatively well done, moist only at the very center, and that’s all she wrote. It wasn’t because the chef has had problems with conventioneers sending fish back for more cooking (although she’s appalled when tables ask for halibut “well done”) but that she herself prefers opah cooked this way, at least after its long air journey. (She finds it too chewy when lightly cooked, and indeed, it may be, served 48 hours later than when I ate it fresh-caught in Honolulu.)
Pan-seared diver scallops were beautiful thick hunks, and tender, but so oversalted they tasted as if they’d been marinated in brine. They came with a lychee relish and sweet-tomato compote, but the garnishes didn’t matter much once the line-cook stubbed his toe on the salt shaker.
We also tried the evening’s special, a poached-grilled free-range chicken breast. Our waiter — radiating enthusiasm, knowledge, and intelligent good looks — had sampled it just before dinner service began. Cooked by the chef herself, it was exquisitely tender, he said. Hours later, we were not as lucky. Cooked-dry breast aborts the flight of even the free-est bird.
Sally’s desserts (aside from those served at the “chef’s table” dinners, which chef Linkenheil prepares personally) are designed by the chef and executed by the hotel’s pastry kitchen. The surprise hit for us was a banana-caramel lumpia (the Filipino version of a spring roll — a crisp-fried dough wrapper that’s more typically stuffed with savory ingredients like ground pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts). The delicate, frangible wrapper bought off the lush weight of the fruit and the richness of the sauce, restoring the balance of sweet and savory flavors. I was less pleased with a coconut panna cotta. I love coconut and adore panna cotta — ideally an ethereal, gelatin-stiffened cream confection, softly atremble like a maiden’s breast — but too much gelatin rendered this version as firmly bouncy as a silicone implant.
Sally’s still has plenty of potential for V-Day: Seafood is light on the tummy, not liable to cause premature snoozing on that special night. The chef plans a special menu for that evening but hadn’t finalized it when I spoke with her. (Hey, how about a raw oyster appetizer for a V-Day aphrodisiac?) All that’s really needed to restore the romance to the atmosphere is a change of soundtrack, from whatever “share the pain” Goth group they were playing to, say, the Coltrane for Lovers CD or equivalent. Sally’s shouldn’t even try to be a bridge-and-tunnel young scenesters’ hangout, never gonna happen — so act your age, lovely lady, and you’ll attract your lovers!
ABOUT THE CHEF
Thanks to a semester as an exchange student in Ohio, Sarah Linkenheil speaks American English with a faint German accent. “Germans aren’t the greatest cooks, but my mom would bake, and I really enjoyed that. And I started making breakfast for my parents, and I really liked that, too. My mom was the big inspiration. And then in high school, I was always the one to make food for my friends, with ideas about what to make, what to bring. And I decided to start my apprenticeship to learn to do it professionally.” At 18, in 1998, she began apprenticing with the Swissôtel Düsseldorf.
There are still relatively few women chefs in the world, least of all at hotels and other top destinations. I asked Sarah if she’d encountered any professional barriers because of her gender during her education or career. “Not really. I always felt like I always outdid everybody,” she laughed. “I was fortunate, because I had a little more basic education than the people that usually started to cook professionally in Germany. I was already 18H , and these kids that had just started to cook were 16, so I was more mature, already taking things a little more seriously. I was very competitive — but I did know a lot more than the guys did that I worked with. It gave me, early on, the idea that ‘I can handle this, oh, yeah.’ You do have to fight your way through, you have to do the smack-talking, you just got to keep up with everybody else, and I was usually worse than everybody else. You know how rough restaurants usually are.”
Sarah continued learning as she gained experience at major European resorts in Switzerland, and later in Vail, Colorado, where she met her husband (who is a line-chef at Arterra). “We were quite done with the cold and snow, so we looked into where else we could go. I was with Hyatt already and kept an eye onto all the job openings, and Sally’s turned up one day, and I applied and got the job.
“The switch to Asian-fusion happened at Sally’s in November–December 2006. I learned about Asian flavors here. I’ve never traveled to Asia, but for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the types of food and spices and techniques used there. Coming from Germany and Switzerland, I have to say that the flavors are a little bland — the farther north of the equator you are, the blander the flavors. It’d be better to go there [to Asia] and learn from people who really know the cuisines and cook them every day, but I’m very fortunate here that my bosses [the hotel executive chefs] are extensively traveled, and they know all kinds of different cuisines. That definitely is my way of learning, and I learn every day. The chef in overall charge of the hotel food is from Hawaii, so he knows all these Asian cuisines. Maybe they need to send me to Hawaii to taste the food there!