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Chef Ed Kenney Brings Hawai‘i Food (and Culture) to a Hipster Hotel in Waikīkī

Mahina & Sun’s opens in the trendy new Surfjack Hotel.


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Mahina’s Family Feast, starring a whole mochiko-fried deep-sea snapper.

Mahina’s Family Feast, starring a whole mochiko-fried deep-sea snapper.
Photo: Steve Czerniak

 

Before he even opened his first restaurant more than a decade ago, we were fans of chef Ed Kenney. We followed his culinary coups from the time the buzz began to build about Town, his flagship Kaimukī eatery. Kenney was an influential champion of the local farm-to-table movement that has, in a short 10 years, transitioned from movement to culinary norm. Now, with his fourth restaurant open since April, Kenney’s culinary roots are stronger than ever, and his food is the best it’s ever been.

 

THE ‘AHI PĀLAHA, FEATURING 12-GRAIN RICE SALAD, SHAVED CARROT, PICKLED MUSHROOMS AND LIMU SALSA VERDE.

 CHEF ED KENNEY, RIGHT, WITH CHEF SEAN PRIESTER AND RESTAURANT MANAGER NATALIE ACZON.

Left: The ‘ahi pālaha, featuring 12-grain rice salad, shaved carrot, pickled mushrooms and limu salsa verde. Right: CHEF ED KENNEY, RIGHT, WITH CHEF SEAN PRIESTER AND RESTAURANT MANAGER NATALIE ACZON. 
PHOTOs: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

Mahina & Sun’s takes a bit of a detour and makes its home in a hotel in Waikīkī, distance that’s not only geographical—his other restaurants are in Kaimukī—but also something of an ideological divergence. At least on the surface. We locals see Waikīkī as a place that’s been created for everyone else with little there for us.

 

Mahina & Sun’s

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

 

So what is a guy like Ed Kenney doing opening a restaurant in Waikīkī? He’s creating a place for us that’s also a place for everyone else. He’s bringing us to them, and he’s doing it with mad style (Mahina’s dining room is fly—super fly), great food and good service: a trifecta of excellence that hasn’t been achieved by earlier Kenney establishments. 

 

THE SALTED MACADAMIA PAVLOVA WITH LEMON-‘ŌLENA CURD. DARK-CHOCOLATE BUTTER MOCHI, WITH BLACK SESAME GELATO.
Left: the salted macadamia pavlova with lemon-‘ōlena curd. Right: Dark-chocolate butter mochi, with black sesame gelato.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

 

We loved Town for its heart and good intentions, and we liked the food. Most of the time. We liked the Kaimukī-by-way-of-Brooklyn vibe and we dug the sort-of Mediterranean bent to the dishes that has become as much a part of his culinary point of view as his local loyalty. With his fast-casual deli concept, Kaimukī Superette, Kenney’s love of food as a cultural value—not merely a means of sustenance—came into sharper focus. It wasn’t a cliché farm-to-table concept. Then came Mud Hen Water, the sister restaurant to the Superette, and Kenney’s vision shone brighter yet, with dishes that reflect what we Islanders call local food, a cultural mash-up of our influences here—Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American—with his signature nod to Mediterranean flavors and styles. He really is guided by the mantra “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always.”

 

Now, there’s Mahina & Sun’s in the newly renovated Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club. With executive chef Sean Priester (formerly of Soul Patrol, among others) at the helm, Mahina’s is, to us, a complete realization of the Kenney food philosophy. Well-meaning and well-designed dishes that actually deliver on flavor, a cool, casual vibe and an eye-candy setting courtesy of killer artist collabs pull this place together. The booths are dressed in vintage Tori Richard prints, artist Andrew Mau designed the custom shaka-print wallpaper, designer and sculptor Mark Chai created the hand-cut wooden lamps. The chic little hotel was built in 1959 and evokes an era of old-school Hawaiiana, minus the kitsch. With each visit to the restaurant, we find a cool new décor detail to love. Last time, we discovered the yellow bird-of-paradise wallpaper in the restrooms and couldn’t stop thinking about it. The only thing that occupies more of our thoughts is the food (at least we have our priorities right)—specifically the Family Feast. 

 

PHOTO: AARON YOSHINO

 

We’re already suckers for family-style dining, but this takes it to a whole new level. Think of the classic American Sunday dinner: a big meaty centerpiece, a veggie side dish, a starchy side dish, a salad and a dessert. Now replace the American ingredients with Hawaiian ones (not just local, Hawaiian). And sit down to a seriously satisfying meal of a whole fried snapper, oven-roasted ‘ulu with garlic aioli, pohole salad with tiny crisp-fried ‘ōpae playing the role of croutons, roasted root vegetables and, for dessert, a salted macadamia pavlova bathed in a lemon-‘ōlena curd, sliced fresh guava, mango and liliko‘i, all topped with whipped cream drizzled with Island honey. We’ve already started planning Mainland friends’ visits around the Family Feast. North Shore, Hanauma Bay, Pali Lookout, Mahina’s Family Feast.

 

HE‘E AND WATERCRESS SALAD.
Photo: Steve Czerniak

 

At a starting price of $35 per person, the feast is a bit of a financial commitment. Because it’s unlikely you’ll order only the feast. And it would be a mistake to leave without also getting the he‘e and watercress salad. Think Italian-style grilled octopus on a salad that’s the best parts of a niçoise salad (potatoes and briny olives) and an antipasto platter (sharp, herb-y vinaigrette, creamy ricotta), punctuated by fresh dill and sesame. If this he‘e has been lomi-ed, we want to meet the hands responsible for getting it so incredibly tender. We suspect it’s tenderized the Italian way (slow simmered in a pot of wine-y brine) rather than the hands-on Hawaiian way. However it gets there, we’re officially addicted. We also love the pa‘i‘ai, a pan-fried taro cake topped with fried akule on a shallow bed of savory-sweet tomato juice. The rest of the starters menu is strong, too. Right up there with the octopus is the Naked Pig: A perfect thin-crust pizza topped with local dairy Naked Cow’s fromage blanc, uncured bacon and Maui onions. We hope the pizza makes it onto the poolside lunch or dinner menu, shorter menus that offer snack versions and various iterations of the restaurant menu. It’s the exactly right dish for a poolside nosh, matched with the bar’s signature cocktail, Sean’s Go-To— chef Priester’s take on a gin and tonic, made with Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin and lime. 

 

The Mr. Pink features Uncle Val’s Botanical gin, Lillet, Yellow Chartreuse, Dry Curacao, lemon and egg white and is topped with a rose petal.
Photo: Steve Czerniak

Mahina’s has a short list of house cocktails (along with a full bar). We’re not completely on board the bitter liquor bandwagon, and this cocktail list reflects that trend: Lillet, Campari, Fernet, Amaro, Chartreuse and Cocchi Americano all make appearances. However, Sean’s Go-To got it just right for us, and we also like the Inigo Montoya. Not just because it satisfies our inner ’80s film geek, but because the celery bitters make the vodka lemongrass cocktail unusual and intriguing. Like a six-finger assassin with a sword. By the time the Feast arrives, though, we have usually settled into the meal with an old stand-by—a gin and tonic or a glass of wine. Or nothing boozy at all because we’re really just there to eat. If we can convince a few people in our hui not to get the Feast, we try to steer them toward the monchong or the ‘ahi dressed with our favorite use of seaweed ever: a limu chimichurri (brilliant!). Or, for a turf-not-surf option, we like the wild boar rigatoni, a classic Italian comfort dish with a rustic buta-hunt twist. There’s also a burger and a chicken dish. But go for the fish. Even if you don’t normally go for the fish. Here, you need to go for the fish.

 

After multiple visits to Mahina & Sun’s, after having tried every dish on every part of the menu, after eating critically and then eating purely for pleasure, we find ourselves wishing for excuses to go back. They don’t even have to be good ones. We like the food, the cool banquettes and cute wallpaper. We like the vintage vibe and friendly staff. But we love most that there’s a place where our Islands, their legacy and heritage, their food and culture, are not merely venerated as history, but where they’re modernized and celebrated.

 

PHOTO: AARON YOSHINo

 

The many sides of Chef Ed Kenney 

Ed Kenney hosts the locally produced Family Ingredients, which debuted nationally on PBS in June. The series repeats starting Aug. 17 on PBS Hawai‘i.

While shooting Family Ingredients in Okinawa, Kenney was working on dishes for Mud Hen Water. No wonder Okinawan soba’s on the menu.

This year, Kenney is writing his first cookbook with a focus on connection, family, responsibility and conviviality.

Kenney’s 15-year-old son was recently diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune condition. In solidarity, he’s joined his son on a modified paleo diet that has improved his health as well. “As a chef, I still taste everything and totally cheat on occasion,” Kenney says. “But the diet really confirms my long-held belief that food is medicine.”

Last year, without training much beyond a semiweekly 4-mile jog around Diamond Head, Kenney signed up for the Honolulu Marathon two days before the race and finished in just under 5 and a half hours. “I was just stoked to finish,” he says. “Cross that off the bucket list.”

His guilty pleasure these days is anything with rice, noodles or bread. “Oh, and Don Julio Blanco on the rocks with half a lime,” he adds.

 

THE INSTAGRAMMABLE POOL TILING INCORPORATES LETTERING BY ARTIST MATTHEW TAPIA.

The Instagrammable pool tiling incorporates lettering by artist Matthew Tapia.
Photo: Gary Saito

 

Takeaway

Valet parking—a bit steep at $8 with validation—is your best bet. It’s easy to rack up a serious tab at Mahina & Sun’s. If you want the full experience—drinks, starters, entrées—it will run about $100 per person. For a less pricey but still satisfying visit, order only from the starters and snacks menus. Feeling the heat? The dining room can get very warm with just fans, although there’s talk of air conditioning. Dress accordingly.

 

Mahina & Sun’s, 412 Lewers St., 924-5810, surfjack.com

 

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