Hanalei Dolphin restaurant is popular. Night after night, it seems to be packed from early evening to close at 10 p.m. It's a mystifying phenomenon. Based on what we tried, the food is mediocre and laughably overpriced for the quality of the food and digs, even for the area. Our hostess and waitress were unhappy and unfriendly, though right before bringing our check, our waitress managed to muster up some faux cheeriness. The sushi bar half of the restaurant features sticky, gaudy, multicolored formica tables.
On a recent evening, we walked in for a late (for Kauai) dinner around 9 p.m. Since there was no wait for the sushi bar, we chose to be seated there. I can only speak for that half of the restaurant -- there's also a standard, cooked seafood-centric menu for the main dining room -- but this part of the menu was not a success, to judge by the nigiri and rolls we tried.
Edamame was probably the best part of the meal. Soybean pods were not overboiled and had been seasoned with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, a nice change of pace from the more usual sprinkling of sea salt.
An order of hamachi nigiri came with two pieces. On the positive side, the neta was good, well cut without fibrous strings, flavorful and well proportioned to the shari. Nigiri pieces were well sized (not overly large) and could be eaten in one bite. On the negative side, the shari was a complete mess. Rice was a strange mixture of medium and long grain with too much vinegar for seasoning, and worst of all, it was undercooked. The center of each grain was hard, which resulted in an extremely off-putting crunchy texture that was unfortunately present in every sushi roll we had that evening, as well. The dab of wasabi paste under the fish was washed out and flavorless.
The negi hama roll (with sesame seeds, minced hamachi and green onions) came as an inside out roll, with a good balance of fish to scallion to rice. I don't expect fish used in rolls to be as good as neta used for nigiri, but some of this stuff was really fibrous, if commendably fresh. The rice was, as before, poorly made and freakishly crunchy. This roll and all the other maki we were served were made with long grain rice.
The garden roll (with "assorted fresh vegetables") was the only roll we tried that I'd consider ordering again, assuming the shari maker just had an off night. (For the record, I would try sashimi, here, since someone in the building seems to know what they are doing with fish, to judge by the nigiri neta; the good fish just doesn't seem to make it into the maki.) The asparagus, wakame, cucumber and avocado were all of high quality and the combination of vegetables was delicious.
A spicy tuna roll (tobiko, green onion and sprouts) included none of the advertised sprouts, but did feature a sliver of cucumber in each piece. It's always hard to taste the freshness of the fish in spicy rolls -- so usually, less fresh fish is used for this purpose -- but the tuna was unpleasantly fibrous. There was a fair amount of heat, which we enjoyed.
Earlier in the day, after a morning swim at the beach, we'd also picked up a snow crab roll from the Dolphin Fish Market behind the restaurant. The roll, a reasonable $9 (in contrast to the restaurant's mostly $17+ rolls), was large, but a bit too loosely rolled, with cucumber, crab salad with a moderate amount of mayonnaise, tobiko and avocado. The rice was medium grain, but importantly, fully cooked. The counterman at the fish market was very nice and the counter featured several types of sushi grade fish.
Moral of the story? There may be good fish to be found at the Hanalei Dolphin, perhaps even good sushi. But if these are what you seek, try the fish market; avoid the restaurant. Your best bet is to buy some sushi-grade fish, take it home and eat it with your own sushi rice.
Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant
5 5016 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, HI