Big Island Roundup
New options, old favorites and a lot of rental-car miles in between.
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Photo by Olivier KoningNeil Murphy’s food at Merriman’s is simple, direct, full of Big Island flavors, like these roasted Hamakua maitake mushrooms with Parmesan.
OK, except for two things. First, the inevitable confusion between the name of the island and the name of the state. Second, everyone who lives here still calls it the Big Island, especially people who live on the Island of Hawaii.
So, if you will excuse my sloppy nomenclature, my problem with the Big Island is that I seldom spend enough time there.
Recently, however, I got a chance to stay long enough to put some serious miles on a rental car, from Kona to Hilo to Volcano to Waimea. My travels took me far from the Kohala Coast resort zone and its high-end eateries. Instead, I found a number of smaller, less expensive restaurants, some new to me and perhaps to you.
OPELO PLAZA // 65-1227 OPELO ROAD, KAMUELA // 808-885-6822 // LUNCH MONDAY-FRIDAY 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M.; DINNER NIGHTLY 5:30 to 9 P.M. // FREE PARKING, MAJOR CREDIT CARDS. // www.merrimanshawaii.com
Merriman’s is hardly new. Peter Merriman began this farm-to-table restaurant in Waimea 20 years ago, long before the notion came into vogue. The restaurant has a wall of awards. But what’s it done lately?
A year ago, longtime executive chef Sandy Barr left the restaurant. “Then I got lucky,” says Merriman.
Reeling from a bad divorce, a New York chef named Neil Murphy was willing to leave the kitchen at Park Avenue Café for this little restaurant in the wilds of Waimea.
The results have been extraordinary. Murphy has not altered the restaurant’s philosophy. “I feel like a shopper, not a chef,” he says. “I go out and get local ingredients, then try not to get in their way.”
For instance, five miles away, Hamakua Mushrooms grows maitake mushrooms in conditions so carefully monitored, the mushrooms come out in little bouquets, about the size of heads of broccoli.
Murphy takes a bouquet of maitake, bathes it in olive oil and roasts it with Parmesan cheese, topping it with some wilted arugula. “See, I hardly do anything,” he says.
Yes, but what he does is the right thing. Your best strategy is to order the nightly chef’s menu, and let Murphy do, or perhaps, “undo” his thing.
For instance, he might start you with guacamole, made with Hawi avocado. It’s topped with miniature cilantro, so fresh Murphy snips it from a still-growing plant right at your table. The chips are house-made with local potatoes, and the dish is accented with bright red cubes of Nakano Farms watermelon. “It’s nothing, it’s guacamole,” shrugs Murphy.