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merriman's

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 inside

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.

hilo bay cafe

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.

hilo bay cafe inside

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!

Merriman's on Urbanspoon

Hilo Bay Cafe on Urbanspoon

daniel thiebaut outside

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.

daniel thiebaut inside

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.

canoehouse

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.

canoehouse mai tai

Daniel Thiebaut on Urbanspoon

Canoehouse (Mauna Lani Resort) on Urbanspoon

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