Big Island Roundup
New options, old favorites and a lot of rental-car miles in between.
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He makes tempura with some surprising ingredients—eggplant, fennel and avocado. “How do you find avocado firm enough to make tempura?” I asked.
“Get the right avocado,” says Murphy. “I buy these from this disreputable-looking guy who comes to the back door. I never ask where he gets them.”
Murphy puts together entrées with benign restraint. His grilled kampachi sits above a sauce that’s mainly reduced carrot juice, with a touch of butter.
He butchers his own Kahua Ranch lambs, offering up sliced tenderloin with sautéed organic Honopua Farms spinach, and a gratin of potatoes and fennel from Hirabara Farms.
Kurt and Pam Hirabara, from the farm, were in the restaurant. “I’m running out of these potatoes,” said Murphy. “Please grow some more.”
Among the desserts is something simple—tart ruby grapefruit segments, sprinkled with sugar and run under the broiler.
“These are the best grapefruits I’ve ever tasted,” says Murphy. “I get them from the yard of Michael Mondavi’s home down the coast. He said I could use things out of his garden. I’m not sure he meant I could raid all his trees.”
Murphy’s chef’s menu is $65 a head. Wine by the glass is extra—you can ask Merriman’s wine director, Jim Lunchick, for pairings. We were moderate in quantity, but not in quality, beginning with a Nicolas Feuillatte champagne and then a cold-climate Australian pinot noir, Tribute by T’Gallent. That ran the tab to more than $100 a person.
If you haven’t eaten at Merriman’s lately, you owe yourself another visit.
WAIAKEA CENTER // 315 MAKAALA STREET #109, HILO // 808-935-4939 // OPEN MONDAY-SATURDAY 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., SUNDAYS 5 to 9 p.m. // FREE PARKING, MAJOR CREDIT CARDS. // www.hilobaycafe.com
Hilo Bay Café is not in a food court. It’s in a shopping center, cattycorner from a Wal-Mart and an OfficeMax, with a jammed parking lot. In other words, nothing that anyone from Honolulu isn’t already used to.
In fact, it’s a familiar sort of place, a modern shopping center café with a swoopy curved bar and track lighting, an upscale menu, plus the kind of esprit you find when there’s a line of people out the door waiting for a table.
The food’s the best I’ve had in Hilo: ahi poke sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. Lots of warm-cold salads: warm apples in smoked bacon over organic spinach, or warm roasted organic beets over greens, with hearts of palm, candied macadamia nuts and feta cheese.
The entrées include a first-class, grass-fed Kulana ribeye, with a slice of savory bread pudding, full of herbs. “Stay away from that,” said my friend, as I reached for it.
All the way from Honolulu, I’d heard of this restaurant’s signature dish, the $10 chicken pot pie with its billowy hat of pastry. I had to order it, but was less than overwhelmed. It was full of chicken, but bland, and many of the “savory” vegetables inside had been previously frozen.
Hilo Bay Café has a full bar, a reasonable wine list. But, it was lunchtime and I was piloting a rental car in the Hilo rain, so we confined ourselves to organic house-made limeade with coconut milk, which tastes even better than it sounds. Lunch for two ran $50 with tip. Make a reservation, this place is packed. Too bad you can’t also reserve a space in the parking lot outside Wal-Mart.
64-957 MAMALAHOA HIGHWAY, KAMUELA // 808-885-6268 // LUNCH 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.; DINNER 5 P.M.. to 10 P.M. // www.hulisues.com
PHOTO by Olivier KoningThe anti-salad: A barbequed pork sandwich and its fried friends at Huli Sue's.
You have to love Huli Sue’s. It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been to where the daily special board lists what the restaurant is buying as well as selling. The day I was there, Huli Sue’s would buy all the citrus you brought into the restaurant. Located in Waimea, Huli Sue’s is sort of archly rustic. It’s a restaurant owned by sophisticates (who also own Fujimamas in Kona), but goes out of its way to pretend it is pure cowtown.
Somehow the conceit works: huge $12 hamburgers stacked high with chili and cheese; barbecue beef and pork sandwiches, with fries and crisp, fresh slaw.
I had time only for a quick lunch at Huli Sue’s, but one of these days I want to go back for dinner: pork chops in bourbon and brown sugar, with corn pudding; barbecued leg of lamb with chili water-pineapple sauce. Plus a full salad bar of stuff they grow themselves or buy from their prospective customers.