One of the places I was most excited to try during our visit to the Big Island was a French-Asian restaurant called Daniel Thiebaut, named after the chef/owner. In particular, I’d heard that they put together one of the most exquisite pupu platters on Hawaii, and after a languid morning spent at Hapuna Beach a plate of small bites sounded perfect. So we hopped in the car and drove about fifteen winding miles northeast into the Waimea farm country. Daniel Thiebaut’s is hard to miss – a bright yellow, rambling historic building that actually used to be the community “Chock in Store” before being remodeled into its current incarnation. There’s a flower stand connected to the building, and one of the main dining rooms used to be a Dress Shop.
We arrived shortly before a vigorous squall blew through town, so the restaurant was fairly subdued. The waitstaff were incredibly friendly, laid back but attentive, and when we inquired after the pupu (which wasn’t offered on the lunch menu), we were told that chef Thiebaut himself was actually in the kitchen and would whip us something up! It was an unexpected stroke of luck, so we settled in with a bottle of L’Ecole No 41 (!) and watched the palm trees whipping around in the gusty wind. The restaurant felt like an old farmhouse, with creaky plank wood floors and Coleman lanterns and cabinets filled with precious plates and other curios.
The pupu came out and as anticipated, was just about perfect – a tripartite plate of grilled Ono skewers with fresh pesto and huge garlic flavor, shrimp covered with a mild chile rub and served over a vibrant green sesame flavored kelp, and crab cakes with a mango and red pepper salsa, breaded and cooked up with peanuts and coconut curry. I savored every bite. We also ordered a bowl of poke, which would easily become our Big Island Dish of Choice 2009 over the course of the trip. This particular version was served in an Asian Tostada – a light and buttery fried tortilla shell filled with baby field greens and fresh tomatoes dressed with wasabi aioli. The Ahi poke was actually served hot – moist, cubed pieces of fish seared in a simple sesame and soy sauce.
We were enjoying ourselves so much, that we decided to linger and sample the “Tastes Like Mom’s” Macadamia Nut Chocolate Portugese Sweet Bread Pudding with Vanilla Sauce and Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream. Do I really need to say anything more? Okay – hereforward, all bread puddings shall be made with Hawaiian sweet bread. Vote Thiebaut. The restaurant was completely empty by this point, so our server decided to give us a tour of the entire building, each room leading into another, each with it’s own rich history. It was a very personal, touching gesture. The entire experience ranked as my favorite of our stay.
And now we descend from the high country to the seaside in search of raw fish. I had heard good things about the sushi bar at The CanoeHouse, whose kitchen had recently been taken over by beloved native chef Dee Ann Tsurumaki. The CanoeHouse is the signature restaurant at the Mauna Lani resort, so I packed my checkbook and away we went. Since resort guests are generally a captive audience, I’ve found that the food is fairly hit-or-miss in quality, and always obscenely overpriced. We were lucky then, that the rumors were true – the food was quite good.
Even better were the drinks! It’s rare for me to drink anything remotely sweet or, heaven forbid, fruity, in the Northwest, but damn if I can’t get enough Mai Tais when I’m in the tropics. It’s like I have a Rum and pineapple gene that activates when the temperature gets above 85 degrees. Anyhow, the Mai Tai at the CanoeHouse was probably the best I had on the Island, so if you’re into that kind of thing, order up.
The restaurant is right on the beachfront, with open-air seating and candlelit tables. The murmur of the patrons ebbs and flows with the waves, and everything is impossibly relaxing. We went fairly late in the evening, but the sprawling space was still pretty packed. Thankfully I’d made reservations, so we were able to sit out on the lanai and enjoy the warm breeze. We ordered a couple of small plates and took our time, starting with the Chef’s special sushi roll – an Ahi and Kampachi California Roll, which was practically the size of my forearm, piled with fish and crab and roe. Honestly, I think there were about 20 individual pieces of sushi in this beast.
Next up was a plate of gigantic butter poached prawns, with grapefruit in a hibiscus nage. The prawns were dense and sweet, and I was happy to find them served with the heads intact. Mmmm… brains. The flavor was pretty unique, tasting of vanilla and cherry. Kampachi was all the rage during our visit, so we decided to try a carpaccio of Kona Blue Kampachi with Hawaiian Ahi tartare. The carpaccio was seasoned with a light hazelnut oil, dried red peppers, pickled cucumbers, sea salt and chives. The raw fish was smooth and mild, and the cucumbers gave the dish a pervasive vinegar tanginess.
Best of all was the CanoeHouse signature “Poke-tini” – a martini glass filled with alternating layers of Ahi, avocado and crispy glazed won tons. The poke was marinated in ginger, and the whole dish was rich and sweet and spectacular. This particular dish was my partner’s favorite of the trip. Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the food, and as predicted, the price tag was hefty. But I’d say it’s worth a visit, if only for the Mai Tais alone.