Besides Daniel Thiebaut, the other restaurant I was particularly excited to try on the Big Island was a place called Merriman’s, also located upcountry in Waimea. Chef/owner Peter Merriman is renowned for his approach to regional Hawaiian cuisine and his thoughtful commitment to fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. I’ll be honest – I was not expecting to come across anyone rocking the locavore tip in Hawaii. In fact, specifically highlighting individual farms and promoting sustainable organic food culture is something I have found to be fairly unique to the Northwest (and the Bay Area). So I was happily surprised when I saw a list of the day’s produce on the menu and shoutouts to particular regions and farms around the Island.
And the actual quality of the food couldn’t have been more evident than in that day’s gorgeous farm salad – charred tomatoes, hearts of palm and heirloom beets on romaine lettuce, topped with a smooth Island chèvre, house-cured bacon and tomato vinaigrette. It’s been such a long and miserable winter, I had forgotten how amazing a sun ripened tomato can actually taste. I’m so done with root vegetables.
Merriman’s was packed and jumping this particular evening. It’s casual, but fairly upscale (for Hawaii), with white tablecloths and chandeliers and a somewhat overzealous, but highly knowledgeable waitstaff. There is a large open kitchen in the back, and potted palm trees throughout the dining room. Small bites of multiple dishes had been working well on this trip, so we decided to go for a taster platter of their signature appetizers. In particular, I was drawn to the Kalua Pig and sweet onion quesadilla with housemade kimchee and mango chili dipping sauce. The pork was milder than my previous experiences with Kalua Pig, but the kimchee was smoking hot and the dipping sauce added a sweet and sour flavor that brought the whole thing together. This chili pepper sauce was also used for lamb spring rolls, stuffed with fresh leafy lettuce and not much else.
Best of all was the steamed Kama’aina shrimp and clams – a fantastic broth of shellfish and spicy Portugese sausage with parsley and grilled lemons and more of those delicious tomatoes. Rounding out the platter were a couple of bites of Ahi sashimi with cucumber namasu and a crispy shrimp papaya salad. It was the perfect amount of food, and we enjoyed the experience immensely. Unfortunately, we discovered too late that Merriman’s also gives daily Farm Tours around the region followed by a three course dinner, which is something I would definitely check out on a future visit.
And so another day is ended, and we find ourselves again on the East side of Hawaii in Hilo town. There are helicopters to ride and lava fields to explore. But first, ono kine grindz, braddah. Tucked away in a congested, nondescript strip mall next to a Walmart is a gem of a restaurant called the Hilo Bay Cafe. It’s small and easy to overlook, but it’s definitely worth the trouble of tracking down. The restaurant itself has a hip and contemporary Asian décor, with curvy olive green walls offset by ruby red glass fixtures and slate black tables.
We were there for lunch, and so was everybody else in the know. The space was crowded and hectic, but we were unhurried and quietly enjoyed our wine and the blues on the sound system (the wine list was noteworthy, with all bottles priced equally and everything available by the glass). We ordered yet another round of Ahi poke to start, and the Hilo Bay Cafe’s particular version was served rough cut with a side of outstanding housemade purple sweet potato chips and a simple dressing of sesame and soy and green onions. I usually don’t go in for “Terra” chips, but these were crispy and salty and really quite excellent.
But I was there for the whole hog, so to speak. I had been so focused on seafood this trip, that I had somewhat neglected my love of the pig. So I ordered up a Kalua Pork sandwich with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions and barbeque sauce, and can safely declare that this is how all pork sandwiches should be made – smoky and melty and messy and divine. Only possible to eat with a knife and a fork over the course of several days. The barbeque sauce was not too sweet with a touch of heat, and didn’t overpower the flavor of the shredded pork. My partner ordered crab cakes with sweet chili aioli, local organic mixed greens and crispy wonton chips with an Asian sesame dressing. There were no complaints.
So that brings us to the end of chapter three on our epic Polynesian food adventure. Will our ridiculous luck with good eats hold out in the fourth part? Is this foreshadowing…? STAY TUNED!