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Buckhead beachhead 

Roy's is to Hawaii what Outback Steakhouse is to Australia

No doubt about it, Roy's has got the buzz. Le toute Buckhead is there every night -- the tasseled-loafer business boys, the big-jewelry gals, the million-milers still angrily grousing about Delta's decision to drop the Atlanta-Honolulu nonstop flight.

The be-there-firsters are there, of course, dining on big-ticket novelty fare. So are the office parties -- decked out in sports shirts, seated at long tables, oh-ing and ah-ing over Basil-Seared Opakapaka and Rough-Filtered Sake. Even the city's top-rated servers are there -- experienced managers and waiters drawn from last year's restaurants-of-the-decade, or the global trendsetters of the year before that.

Based on Roy Yamaguchi's spectacularly successful Pacific-fusion formula perfected in a Honolulu suburb, the Atlanta operation even manages to look Hawaiian. From basket chairs and basket-weave sun shades to batik uniforms, masses of orchids and stylized Japanese lanterns, the decoration is warm as a Kona wind, luxurious as a Kohala resort lobby and as eye-poppingly distinctive as innumerable corporate designers, honchos and conceptualizers can make it.

Ceilings are high, windows wide and the restaurant enormous -- 9,500 square feet on the ground floor of a faceless office stack. As in Honolulu and at other Roy's units in the Islands, the open kitchen extends out into the dining room. Thus, like its island sisters, the Buckhead newcomer is loud, loud, loud. But so what? Being at Roy's can be fun, fun, fun.

Like units in Florida, Maryland and some in California, the Atlanta operation is connected to Tampa, Fla.-based Outback Steakhouse. Chef Yamaguchi was formerly Outback's franchisee in Hawaii. His Roy's restaurants in Japan, Guam and the West Coast are likewise franchise ventures, though in other hands. The restaurants in Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island are managed by Yamaguchi and his personal team.

Brand-name chefs can work in but one kitchen at a time. Yamaguchi's personal cooking style is highly seasoned, carefully layered and based on ultra-fresh seafood and island produce. In Atlanta, the intention seems not so much to reproduce Chef Yamaguchi's cuisine as to mass-market it, and at beach-resort prices.

At their best, the visually arresting dishes at Roy's in Buckhead closely resemble their Honolulu counterparts. But the realities of transportation, training and, above all, local variations in taste and acceptability, make literal replication close to impossible. That said, the Buckhead formula does have its moments.

As we were perusing the menu -- and sending the still-chilled French bread back to the kitchen for warming -- a highly dramatic appetizer was delivered to the ladies at the adjacent table. It consisted of four jumbo shrimp posing as palm trees, a pineapple-slice island and a surrounding sea of sunset-red sauce. When we inquired, the waiter described it: Coconut crusted tiger shrimp with kaffir lime-scented cocktail sauce ($9).

A nightly special from chef-partner David Tarrin (as opposed to corporate recipes listed as "Roy Yamaguchi's original and most definitive Hawaiian fusion dishes"), the crisp shrimp, grilled pineapple and Thai-accented dip tasted as good as they looked.

The friends with whom I dined that night also were with me at Roy's in Honolulu last December. To celebrate our reunion, we ordered a set of what had been the best item of the Oahu dinner -- crab cakes. The pair served last year were notably crisp outside, creamy and sweetly crabby within, packed with flavor and highly memorable. Though of modest size, those cakes were not burdened by a high percentage of filler, either. The Atlanta cakes ($11), notwithstanding their pedigree and a spicy sesame sauce, were dull, heavy and about as distinctive as lunch at a Marriott. Shrimp and pork spring rolls, crisp but bland, were remarkable for their delectable pineapple-black bean sauce and price ($9). Blackened ahi tuna -- "Roy's Original Blackened," mind you -- was as close to raw as to make no difference; a two-alarm mustard-butter sauce helped somewhat ($13).

Do you see a pattern emerging here? Reliable sauces and formularized flavorings that can be easily wed to ornate menu language, theatrical presentation and readily available ingredients such as shrimp, tuna and macadamia nuts? Remember Outback's Bloomin' Onion? Chocolate Thunder from Down Under?

Here in Atlanta, we've developed a taste for expensive novelty foods -- South American-style grilled beef (Fogo de Chao), sushi (Soto), Southwestern (Nava) and Euro-fusion (Seeger's), to mention only a few. Some of these are watered-down versions, some not. The initial popularity of Roy's as a destination is little wonder.

Still, I doubt that entrees like bland Opakapaka (pink snapper, seared with a basil rub, $29), forgettable Pepper-Crusted Ono (wahoo, with delicious shiso cream sauce, $28) or Mama Yama's heavily salted meatloaf (with yummy onion rings, $16) will keep the expense-account crowd happy. Nor, in my opinion, will the heavily promoted house wines. Aside from an awesome Roy's late-disgorged blanc de blancs 1992 sparkler by Iron Horse Vineyards, those I sampled included a barely-OK-but-alcoholic Oregon pinot gris from Rex Hill and an acidic, jug-like Oregon pinot noir, also by Rex Hill.

If this stuff were cheap and if I hadn't been to Hawaii a dozen times and eaten in most of Roy's island restaurants -- because they are well worth the trouble and expense -- maybe the Buckhead beachhead would suit me better. Yeah, I know: Franchised (partnered, packaged, whatever) outlets are about popularization of a cuisine, not strict authenticity. Wolfgang Puck does it with airport pizza boutiques, Nobu Matsuhisa with sushi-fusion glitz, Paul Prudhomme with spice mixes.

Roy Yamaguchi gives a good interview. He flew in to open the restaurant. He directs the culinary staff. He's published a cookbook and starred in his own cooking show. If I were writing a celebrity column, this report might be a lot more enthusiastic. So call me an aloha snob. I'd rather be in Hawaii -- at Alan Wong's in Honolulu or Amy Ota's noodle shop in Kona. Or at Roy's -- one of the real Roy's.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or elkcam1@hotmail.com

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