Three and a half years ago, Ryan Jasielum took up the mantle of Liholiho’s opening somm, Lulu McAllister, and fashioned a wine list full of precise, focused wines that play off chef Ravi Kapur’s riffs on Hawaiian and Polynesian flavors. When we spoke, he was wrapping up his tour of duty at the always-busy restaurant. Taking his place is longtime Liho bar manager and former Wine & Spirits tasting coordinator Erik Tennyson.
So I visited Liho for the first time recently and I have to say, it was such a great vibe! When Jeff [Hanak] and Ravi [Kapur] opened the restaurant, they always wanted it to be fun, but also serious. They really wanted the place to reflect an Aloha spirit, which is the essence of hospitality in Hawaii. You know: that feeling you get when you get off the plane you’re greeted with a warm smile, a welcoming atmosphere. When it comes to the food, it’s sort of a culture of abundance. Meals there are like feasts; they can be really opulent.
Do you find that having such a well-regarded cocktail program cuts into the wine program? We’ve always been a restaurant where cocktails dominate. We sell about two-thirds cocktails and one-third wine and sake. The majority of clientele is on the millennial side of spectrum, and many of them just drink cocktails. It’s not a serious competition if you look at total sales. But it can be symbiotic; some might start with cocktails and then move onto a half or even a full bottle.
So let’s have a look at your top ten wines… Well, the first thing you need to know is that seven of my top ten are half-bottles, including the top five. I was really surprised when I did the numbers, but it’s true.
That’s pretty wild. How did you get that to work? Well, it has to do with how diverse our menu is, with all these fish dishes at the top of the menu and steaks and short ribs and sweetbreads farther down. Half-bottles work for that. They work for smaller tables, smaller parties. You can do albariño with your seafood and small bites, and for your ribeye you’ve got your López de Heredia and Château Musar. You have more versatility in your pairing options, and people are more likely to get a second bottle. I make sure that the half-bottles are recognizable—top varieties, top regions, top wines, but especially brands people know and trust. Then, with the full bottle list, we can get a bit geekier and more experimental.
Your most successful wine this year was the Lapierre Morgon. Why? The versatility of cru Beaujolais really works with the diversity of our cuisine. If you’ve ordered a tannic red or some high-acid white—both of which we have on the menu—that’s fine, but it probably won’t work through entire meal. Light reds tend to be the jam here. It’s the happy medium. And the Lapierre has a little of that thing I love in cru Beaujolais—a kind of funky freshness to it that fits so well with our cuisine, like the beef tongue steam buns or our house-made Spam.
The Spam! That’s the best Spam I’ve ever tasted. It’s made in house, yes? Yes, it’s a blend of roasted hams and pork shoulder, pureed with spices until it’s sort of soft like ‘nduja. Then it’s spread onto a hotel pan and cryovac’ed, then steamed, cut into squares and pan- fried to order. One of the crazier tasks in my buying duties is to seek out the very best “Spam wines.” Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d be pairing Spam with Burgundy, but it’s actually not a bad pairing.
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