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Walk on the Wild Side

Most wild game isn't wild but that doesn't mean it's not worth eating.


I couldn't resist. I seldom write about dinners that won't be available by the time the review hits print. But Adam Hightower was doing a special wild-game menu at Bali by the Sea.

Adam Hightower, chef of Bali by the Sea. photo: courtesy of Hilton Hawaiian Village

Who's Adam Hightower? He's Bali's new 28-year-old chef. He arrived at the Hilton a year ago as chef tournant, French for a guy who cooks wherever they put him. In November, the hotel, recognizing his abilities and youthful passion for his craft, handed him its fine-dining restaurant. The staff, from manager Alicia Antonio to the server who cleared the table, seems genuinely pleased to have him on board.

Hightower knew what he wanted to do from an early age. He started cooking when he was 4. To jump start his professional education, he'd finish his high school classes and then drive to nearby Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich., for culinary studies. When he graduated at 18, he set himself an ambitious program, he says. "I wanted to cook in 10 states in the next 10 years."

He made only eight. "But ending up in Hawai'i, in an oceanfront fine-dining restaurant, is fine with me."

To Hightower, Hawai'i is a chef's paradise. "You have the best ingredients in the world here." He's at work revising the Bali menu, put together by the well-regarded Roberto Los Banos, who moved up into the executive chef's office. Hightower's new menu will have, as they say about Island architecture, a sense of place.

It's a menu that will seem familiar. 'Ahi poke wrapped in Japanese cucumber. Sugar cane scallops. Tempura lobster in lemongrass traps. And Kona Kampachi, the yellowtail fish being aquacultured off the Big Island. "It's a fabulous fish, almost like hamachi. I hope to make it my signature," says Hightower, who, for his entrée, cooks it medium rare in an orange miso sauce.

While Hightower is eager to prove himself as a Hawai'i regional chef, I was most intrigued that he was willing to do a wild-game dinner, even if it was only offered as a special for a few winter weeks. "It takes me back to Michigan, where winter means hunting and meals with a lot of protein," he says. "For me, this is comfort food."

For him, it was comfort food. For me, it was a chance to eat things I seldom, if ever, see on a Hawai'i menu. Besides, 70 degrees may have seemed balmy and tropical to Hightower, who grew up in Michigan, where winter doesn't just arrive, it attacks. However, sitting in Bali's open dining room, I felt a definite nip in the air. The friend who accompanied me to dinner draped a red wool shawl across her shoulders. I was glad I had worn a jacket.

It was, to my shivering self, winter. I needed some culinary comforting. And I got it.

The menu was four courses: an amuse bouche of Kona Kampachi and 'ahi sashimi, an appetizer, a choice of entrée and dessert.

Things got interesting with the appetizer, a grilled quail salad.

Hightower was unwilling to settle for just any quail. He wanted fresh Bob White, which, as he puts it, "is the Cadillac of quail. Once you taste it, you won't eat any other kind." Finding it required lots of phone calls until he found a farm in northern Pennsylvania.

I was a little worried about this course. Quail's a small bird, difficult to disassemble with a knife and fork. Or do you just pick it up and eat it with your fingers in the middle of a fine-dining restaurant?

Venison steak, from Bali by the Sea. photo: courtesy of Hilton Hawaiian Village

Hightower solved the problem by topping his salad with boneless slices of quail breast. "These must be big quail," I said.

"The best," he said, "but I slipped you a little extra, because you said you were starving."

Everybody thinks everything from rattle-snake to quail tastes like chicken. But quail tastes much better than chicken, with a clean yet opulent flavor. "I'm sorry I couldn't get the kind where you have to pick buckshot out of the bird," said Hightower. "But these aren't bad."

Once I'd dispatched the quail, the salad, built on a bed of baby spinach and arugula, proved to be worth eating. Hightower was worried about the arugula. Too much? Seemed fine to us.

"I couldn't have used that much arugula on the Mainland," he said. "People would hate the strong pepper and bitter flavors. But this is arugula from Nalo Farms, the best I've ever tasted."

The salad got even more interesting as I poked through it: candied walnuts, dried cranberries, French green lentils tossed with truffle oil. The dressing seemed both compelling and oddly familiar. It turned out to be the warm bacon dressing you might expect on a spinach salad, kicked up a notch with Jerez vinaigrette and a not-too-overpowering touch of Hightower's own bacon.

It's hard to match a wine to a salad. Fortunately, the sommelier, Stephen Fuller, took the task upon himself. "Try this," he said. "It's real drinkable."

"My bosses can't believe how expensive an Armagnac I use," said Hightower.

It was a Frescobaldi Castello di Pomino. In Tuscany, Castello di Pomino is known for being planted with French grapes. This was a blend of pinot noir, merlot and sangiovese. As red wines go, it was feather-light—any heavier, it would have been a mistake with the salad. But light as it was, it did not taste like fruit juice. Perhaps because of the sangiovese backbone, it tasted like wine.

Given a choice of entrées, my friend ordered the partridge, because it came with foie gras. The partridge was farm-raised, said Hightower, with a touch of scorn. "It's essentially a baby chicken." Though not as distinctively flavored as the quail, the partridge had more taste than a chicken, since most commercially raised chickens these days taste like Styrofoam.

The foie gras was sautéed in sugar and Armagnac. "My bosses can't believe how expensive an Armagnac I use," said Hightower.

The most striking thing on the plate was red-onion marmalade. It was cooked down with vinegar, sugar and a liqueur called Pear William. "That's me," said Hightower, "sugar and expensive liqueurs. I thought it would add a little something wacky to the plate."

The marmalade tipped the plate a little sweeter than I would have chosen, but the sweetness was undercut by a bone-dry California gewürztraminer that Fuller served with it. With my entrée, he served a different wine altogether, a Crozes Hermitage from Alain Graillot, a Northern Rhone red full of pepper and tobacco flavors.

It takes a plate of fervent flavors to stand up to a wine like that. Fortunately, I got one.

The center of the plate was a venison steak, farm-raised in New Zealand, crusted in peppercorns. Venison tends to be lean, farm-raised even more so. The challenge is not to dry it out in cooking, so Hightower wrapped the filet in bacon. Wow, my first bite was all peppercorn crust and bacon, bacon, bacon.

Hightower makes his own bacon, a slab at a time, smoking it, coating it with Dijon mustard and honey, then slow-roasting it. It wasn't wild game, but it was wild.

Eventually I stripped the bacon off and enjoyed it separately, because I wanted to taste the venison pure and simple. Sometimes people complain that venison is gamey, but unless they're getting meat that hasn't been handled properly, all they are tasting is the venison itself.

A trio of créme brûlées. photo: courtesy of Hilton Hawaiian Village

Venison has a distinct flavor—a little sharper, a little livelier and a lot lighter than beef. It's a surprise to the palate used to beef steaks or lamb chops, but it's delicious.

There were lots of surprises to the palate on this plate. The venison was augmented by some slices of wild-boar sausage, as juicy and powerful and herby as any great pork sausage. "You catch the pig?" my friend asked Hightower. "No," he said. "My job was to turn it into 120 sausages."

Tucked all around the protein were good things. For a touch of sweetness, a comfiture of blackberries. For a touch of astringency, there was red cabbage. "Most of my bosses are German or Austrian," says Hightower. "They'd never let me do venison without red cabbage."

When I was a child, my German grandmother made red cabbage for all special occasions. Hightower's is better than hers, cooked in apples, imported cider vinegar, white wine.

On both my friend's and my plates were two lengths of salsify. Salsify is a root, a close cousin of gobo. Like gobo, it can be tough and fibrous. Hightower patiently cooked his salsify in cream. It still had texture and forkability, but it melted in your mouth with all the lingering goodness of something that had been cooked forever in heavy cream.

Finally, right down the center of my plate was a big squiggle of purée. The server told me it was butternut squash. Butternut squash is usually prepared as if it were supposed to be pumpkin pie, with a slug of sugar and spices. But when I tasted the squiggle, with some trepidation, I got two surprises. It wasn't squash; and it was good, addictive really, with some quirky, distinctive flavor that hovered on the edge of my consciousness.

I asked Hightower what it was. He laughed. "Nobody thinks they like beans, so I thought I'd sneak some in." He'd puréed Tuscan white beans with a touch of demi-glace and that flavor that I should have recognized immediately—white truffle oil.

Over dessert, a trio of crème brûlées and a mocha mousse in an elaborate chocolate coffee cup with a cookie spoon, I reflected on the dinner.

It wasn't really wild. The game was all farm-raised. In fact, although I'd sort of mentally blocked out the 'ahi sashimi that came first, impatient to get to the quail and venison, I realized that the 'ahi was, in fact, the wildest thing on the menu, living free until it was caught.

Deer, partridge and quail may be game animals. But on a restaurant menu, they're no more wild than the Kona Kampachi, which is raised in large cages off the Big Island by company called Deep Blue.

"I first thought that I'd get venison by calling my hunting buddies in Michigan and having them send me a couple deer," said Hightower. "That turns out to be illegal."

"I first thought that I’d get venison by calling my hunting buddies in Michigan and having them send me a couple deer," said Hightower. "That turns out to be illegal."

True. Even if Hawai'i has its share of wild game—from wild, or at least feral, pig on all the islands, to axis deer on Maui, Moloka'i and Lana'i—little to none of it will ever grace a restaurant menu.

"The liability is just too great," says Frank Leake, associate professor in the culinary program at Kapi'olani Community College. "What if someone gets sick? The lawyers would be all over you."

Leake admits that, while he was a chef at the Hotel Hana-Maui, he would occasionally cook up a wild boar shot by a Maui hunter. "But that was only for a family gathering, a private function. You'd never do that for the dining room. The Board of Health would shut you down."

I finally decided it didn't matter if most of the dinner wasn't really wild. Since most of us never eat game meats, farm-raised or not, it seemed wild where it mattered, on the plate. Hightower managed to pack each plate with palate-awakening flavors.

For me, it was a dinner well worth having, even at $200 for two, including wine and tip. The wild game concept had pulled things onto the menu things I seldom eat, including the little touches like red cabbage, Tuscan bean purée and red-onion marmalade.

It was also a great introduction to Hightower's cooking, a little touch of his own background, something new he's bringing to Island cuisine.

Next time you're at the Bali, you might ask him to do it again.

I'm game for another round.

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