First Look: Ed Kenney’s Newest Kaimukī Restaurant, Mud Hen Water
Ed Kenney’s newest restaurant gives him the license to let loose with international inspiration.
Editor’s Note: This is not a review, but a first look at the most buzzed about restaurant in town right now.
FROM LEFT: CHORIZO, POTATO CHIPS, CHOCOLATE; HE‘E, LU‘AU, INAMONA DUKKAH; I‘A LAWALU (SWORDFISH WRAPPED IN BANANA LEAVES AND COOKED IN COALS)
Photo: Martha Cheng
For every dinner date over the past two weeks, people have asked me, “Can we go to Mud Hen Water?” (Actually, half of them ask to go to “Mud Water Hen*.”) You’d think it was the only restaurant in town.
The anticipation for Mud Hen Water has been building ever since Kaimukī Superette opened almost a year ago, when chef and restaurateur Ed Kenney started dropping hints about the sit-down restaurant he’d be opening up next to the Superette and across from his original restaurant, Town, now 10 years old.
A lot has happened in 10 years. I had moved to Hawai‘i from San Francisco a year after Town had opened, and everyone had told me to check it out, even though they were generally pretty lukewarm about it. They liked the idea of Town—with its motto of “local first, organic whenever possible, and with aloha always”—but they didn’t always like the food. After a few tries, I felt the same way. I admired the chefs—Kenney and Dave Caldiero and their ethos—but, in the beginning, the food was hit or miss. Fortunately, they’ve gotten more skilled and wiser since then. Town has since found its groove, and it’s now one of my favorite restaurants in, well, town.
In recent years, Town has really transformed from a San Francisco restaurant look-alike (Kenney admitted that the initial template for Town relied heavily on Delfina in S.F.) to one that belongs in Hawai‘i. It combines pa‘i‘ai and pohole with coppa di testa; a charcuterie plate with starfruit mostarda; and the lightest and most delicate gnocchi around with whatever’s fresh and local in Hawai‘i right now. Still, even with the local Hawai‘i touches, Town is unmistakably Italian in its flavors.
Mud Hen Water is finally Kenney’s license to let loose with international inspiration. You would never find shoyu at Town, but here it is, glazing pa‘i‘ai wrapped in nori. Lup cheong at Town? No way. But at Mud Hen Water, it studs madeleines served with miso-flavored whipped lard. This is the new Hawai‘i, on a single menu. There are the familiar influences—Chinese (in the cold ginger rabbit), Korean (pig face and kim chee omelet), Japanese (tilapia-skin salad, a take on the izakaya staple, salmon-skin salad) and local (grilled beef stew)—done as only the chefs behind Town can (rabbit, pig face, tilapia, beef stew—grilled!).
But Hawai‘i is no longer summed up by its plantation history. The new Hawai‘i is no longer insular and inward-looking, but embraces influences from the world over. So there are slices of Spanish-style chorizo draped over potato chips dipped in bitter chocolate, and there is fish cooked in banana leaves, served with a green-banana tamale. A very local dish of he‘e and stewed lū‘au leaves is sprinkled with an inamona dukkah, an Egyptian-inspired blend of nuts and herbs and spices. Look to the back wall, by the bathroom, and you’ll see the sources of the chefs’ admiration and inspiration. Menus line the wall—Roberta’s in Brooklyn, Prune in New York, The French Laundry in Napa, The Girl and the Goat in Chicago, The Pig and the Lady right here in Honolulu.
Like at those restaurants, Mud Hen Water’s menu is unique in all the world—deeply personal and reflective of a certain time and place. It is the most striking menu in Hawai‘i, and yet, it doesn’t feel contrived; it feels completely organic (in the natural versus agricultural sense). It is simply a snapshot of Hawai‘i in 2015. A time of change, a time of ideas, excitement toward the future, with a deep respect for the past. I can’t wait to see how Mud Hen Water—and Hawai‘i—continue to grow.
* Mud Hen Water is the translation of Wai‘alae, where the restaurant is. Wai = fresh water. ‘Alae = mud hen, an endangered native water fowl. “The mo‘olelo states that there was a thriving spring in the area that was home to the ‘alae and a community gathering place/watering hole,” says Kenney.
Mud Hen Water, 3452 Wai‘alae Ave., 737-6000, mudhenwater.com