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Our adventure in paradise was winding down, and there were still a handful of places that we wanted to check out before our departure. Chief among them was a Thai restaurant named Bamboo located up on the northernmost tip of the Big Island in Hawi. So after another gorgeous morning on Hapuna Beach, we hopped back in the car and headed up to North Kohala. Hawi is a quaint and quiet little town with a handful of galleries and craft shops and a great little shave ice counter. Based on everything I’d read, I was expecting a lot out of Bamboo, but it actually wound up being the biggest disappointment of the trip.
The space itself was a lot of fun, with strands of colorful twinkling lights strewn about and all manner of kitschy décor from wooden Tucans to hanging Balinese umbrellas. The atmosphere was totally relaxed, the wicker chairs were deep and comfortable, and I settled in with one of their (mediocre) Mai Tais. We started with an order of chicken satay pot stickers, which I found to be very strange – the grilled chicken was ground up and mixed with peanut butter (!) and ginger to create a very dense, sticky filling which was then stuffed into a thick, doughy wrapper and steamed. It was definitely unique, but not necessarily in a good way.
Worse were the actual main dishes, neither of which had any flavor whatsoever. We decided to go vegetarian for this course, so I opted for a veggie and tofu stir fry with Thai coconut sauce and my partner ordered grilled tofu. We essentially got the exact same dish, only mine had udon noodles in addition to everything else. The vegetables were just fine – broccoli, green peppers, cabbage and zucchini topped with whole shelled peanuts. And the tofu was well cooked, not rubbery like you get sometimes. But overall the dish was very bland and flavorless, the coconut sauce was mild and the noodles were limp – more steam than fry. I requested some Sriracha, and instead they brought me a housemade sambal, which would have been awesome if it hadn’t tasted like stewed tomatoes and chili pepper flakes. It was the bland leading the bland. We had enjoyed so many awesome meals on this trip though, that it didn’t really get us down. We simply shrugged our shoulders and went back to the beach.
On our final night in Hawaii we didn’t want to venture too far from Puako, so we popped down to Waikoloa Village to visit the mall and eat with the tourists. I kid, I kid. We figured a dinner at Roy’s would be a fitting farewell to the Island, so off we went. Roy Yamaguchi was one of the first chefs to really popularize Hawaiian fusion cuisine in the 1980′s and he has since gone on to build a franchise restaurant empire all over the United States. This probably explains the very corporate, almost sterile feel of the restaurant. It’s spacious and sprawling with lots of mood lighting and beautiful people standing around the very noisy bar.
And while the enormous kitchen may look like a conveyor belt, the food is actually not bad at all and the service is friendly and professional. After we sat down, our server brought us a complimentary bowl of edamame that was quite tasty, with sesame oil and Hawaiian salt and other assorted spices. There was a nice 3 course prix fixe “Fusion Sampler” for $43 that sounded like a bargain, so I curtailed my sense of irony and ordered the macadamia nut-encrusted Mahi Mahi for the main dish. But before that came out, I was served my final pupu of the trip: a cute trio of appetizers, including a tiny rack of spicy Szechuan baby back pork ribs, a bamboo skewered grilled white shrimp and a couple of char siu pork spring rolls.
The filet of Mahi Mahi was served in a duo of sauces – on one side of the bowl was a rich sauce made of “Maine lobster essence”, and on the other side was a very creamy beurre blanc. The Mahi Mahi was a pretty meaty fish, and together with the rich sauces I could hardly get through half of the filet. It was tasty, but pretty decadent. My partner ordered a filet mignon with Malaysian steak sauce, cranberry beans and roasted beets that was superb. The sauce was a nice spicy curry that went well with both the beans and the meat.
Finally, we ended the meal with Roy’s signature dessert, a melting chocolate soufflé with W&J Graham’s Six Grapes Port. I was pretty full from the fish, and I normally don’t go in for sweets, but this soufflé was fantastic – a crusty chocolate cake that oozes hot dark chocolate when you crack it open. It was a wonderful way to end our stay. As we left the restaurant, I noticed that the art gallery next door had a gigantic advertisement in the window for NEW GLASS BY DALE CHIHULY! It was a hilarious reminder that we would soon be heading home.
In the end, it was a great vacation and I once again have to give props to the amazing contributors over at the Chowhound message boards who are always enlightening and rarely steer me in the wrong direction. All told though, it’s good to be back in town and I can’t wait to start writing about local food again. I hope you’ve enjoyed the side trip!
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!
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.
And so it was that the relentless bitter cold and interminable winter doldrums had driven us to the brink of sanity, and we fled the Northwest for more tropical climes on a well-deserved vacation. Next stop: The Big Island, Hawaii. We had visited the previous year and enjoyed the laid back vibe and white sandy beaches, although we realized in retrospect that we hadn’t actually seen all that much of the island. We were staying on the western or Kona side of Hawaii, up north in Puako Bay and had resolved to experience more of the local culture this time out.
So on our first full day, the sun (THE SUN!) woke us early and we drove the three hours it takes to get to the southeast or Hilo side of Hawaii in order to experience the madness that is the Maku’u Craft and Farmer’s Market in Puna. A cross between a Flea Market and a Grateful Dead concert, with hundreds of vendors selling everything from jewelry to produce to home-brewed kava. There was live music and ceramic dolphins and lots of food, from Samoan to tamales. It was pretty obvious that one food stall in particular was consistently drawing the largest crowds, so we decided to hit up SMOKE MEAT and get our barbeque on.
In particular, we ordered one of the Hawaiian style (S)AUSAGES, mostly due to the whim of the gnarled old dude running the barbeque, who would periodically throw a random handful of meat on the grill and thereby determine what you would be eating. The entire sausage was cut up into slices and dumped on a paper plate with the usual macaroni salad and white rice that comprise nearly every “plate” lunch in Hawaii. It was an immense amount of food, which I would quickly discover is generally the case with most eats on the Big Island. Sorry, “grinds“. Anyhow, the sausage was sweet and smoky and delicious – a Hawaiian variation of Portugese Linguica. It kept us happy and satisfied throughout the rest of the day as we toured around Volcano National Park and the remote backwaters of Ka’u looking for some strange Buddhist retreat.
By the time we made it back to the West side of the Island, it was late and we were tired and there was still quite a ways to go before reaching Puako. We were driving through the winding roads of Captain Cook, when out of the darkness I saw a neon vision appear on the side of the road and immediately parked the car. The Manago Hotel.
The Manago Hotel had repeatedly been mentioned on local message boards as a prominent culinary destination, and in particular, they reportedly served up some crazy famous pork chops. The historic building was built in 1917 and had an ancient, roadhouse feel to it. The dining room was small and quiet and dark, with wood-paneled walls and formica table tops. It definitely felt like stepping into a time warp, an experience light years away from what you get at the resorts (which I’ll touch on in a later post).
Our server was ridiculously sweet and attentive and clearly proud of the Manago’s food and reputation. Each dinner automatically came with FOUR side dishes – the inevitable macaroni salad (which to be fair, was much closer to a traditional potato salad), a bowl of white rice, and then some fairly unique servings based on the season. In this case, a bowl of ogo seaweed, blanched with vinegar and sugar and onions, and a plate of local squash, cooked until translucent and then served cold with shoyu. The seaweed was fresh and crunchy, and the squash was very distinctive, with the texture and consistency of an onion.
Of course I ordered the pork chops, which were very simply prepared – lightly breaded and then pan fried in butter. Nothing particularly fancy or even noteworthy really, until smothered with a fantastic side of sweet grilled onions and a thin brown gravy that had impossibly huge flavor. Seriously, those grilled onions and that gravy made the chops. My partner ordered ahi tuna in a butter and garlic sauce, which was served hot and flaky and entirely cooked. We wondered for a moment if we’d ever actually eaten COOKED ahi. Seared, sure, but cooked? It was very, very old school. Which made sense, because everything about this place was old school.
The warm night air drafting through the window, a ton of food, a couple glasses of decent wine, and a tremendously inexpensive final bill set the stage smoothly for what was to be a very pleasant stay in paradise…