Dining: Alternative Lanai

There's luxury hotel dining on Lanai, but fortunately that's not all.


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Not luxury resort stuff, perhaps, but far better than home cooking.

“What do you want to drink with that?” asked Zigmond. “How about an Amarone?”

Zigmond’s wine list is remarkable for a place where you can also get a pizza and a Bud Light. But an Amarone della Valpolicella? That wondrous Italian red is made from grapes allowed to dry, so the sugars concentrate. Usually the grapes were turned into a sweet wine, but in the 1930s, a winemaker forgot a batch and the sugars fermented entirely into alcohol. One of the most powerful Italian dry red wines was born.

There’s not a lot of Amarone produced, it’s expensive, and you might expect a $125 bottle or two in a high-end Honolulu Italian restaurant. But on Lanai?

Turns out Zigmond had to go to the doctor’s in Honolulu, and in an Oahu version of Lanai neighborliness, his wine broker, Josh Trowbridge, of Johnson Brothers, picked him up at the airport and drove him. Along the way, Trowbridge offered him a deal on Tommasi Amarone. “It’s cheap enough I can sell it for $18 a glass,” says Mark. “For us, it’s a recession buster.”

The whole restaurant is. Lanai is the most expensive of the Neighbor Islands. But at Pele’s, the chicken Parmesan and bowties and butterflies are both $18.99, which, I might remind you, is cheaper than the eggs Benedict at the Lodge.

Pele’s is renowned on Lanai for its desserts, especially its “Big Chocolate Cake.” But if you want me to order a six-layer chocolate cake, you’re going to have to do a worse job on the spaghetti, because I was full after eating it all.

Lanai City Grille
Hotel Lanai, 828 Lanai Ave., Lanai City  // (808) 565-7211 // Dinner Wednesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.  // Free parking, major credit cards // www.hotellanai.com/grille

The molten German chocolate cake at Lanai City Grille hits the spot.

Photo by: Monte Costa

A Lanai restaurant has to come with a story. This one starts on Thanksgiving 2006. Mary Charles and Tom Kiely, who have a Charles Dickey-style home up the hill from the 1923 Hotel Lanai, were having dinner and sat down afterward with Henry Clay, who’d been running the hotel and its restaurant for a dozen years and was ready to move on.

Kiely is CEO of Xterra, the international off-road multisport races. Charles had just sold Mary Charles and Associates, a destination-management company. For years, she handled large corporate groups coming to the Islands, doing everything from organizing theme parties to evacuating 250
FedEx executives from Kauai in the wake of Hurricane Iniki. It was probably not a good idea to let someone with Charles’ energy

The day after Thanksgiving, Kiely went for a run on Lanai, and came home with an idea. Maybe they could buy the hotel, renovate it and get Mary’s Phoenix, Ariz., nephew, Mike, and his fiancée, Michelle, to run it.

“I had the same idea 10 minutes ago,” said Charles.

So it happened. Mike and Michelle came to check it out at Christmas, and Kiely and Charles bought the hotel in May 2007. But not before a third critical ingredient fell into place. Charles’s friend, Bev Gannon, of Haliimaile General Store and Joe’s on Maui, who provided meals for Hawaiian Airlines and was one of the 12 original Hawaii regional cuisine chefs, signed on as culinary consultant for the hotel’s restaurant.

“We wouldn’t have considered it without Bev,” says Charles. “She gave us instant credibility.”

Instant credibility, but not instant personnel in the kitchen, since Gannon couldn’t run the place personally. The current, and fourth chef, however, is a find. Mike Davis, 36, cooked years ago at the Lodge under the legendary Edwin Goto (now at the Mauna Lani). Davis wandered back to his native New England, but missed Hawaii.

He came out to help Goto at the Mauna Lani over the 2007 holidays—“I owe that guy so much, his passion, his total cool in the kitchen,” he says—then hooked on again at the Lodge, eventually moving over to Charles’ renovated and reopened restaurant, Lanai City Grille.

So what’s it like working with Gannon, I asked him, knowing that the Maui chef is a sweetheart everywhere but in the kitchen. “She’s like a second Mom to me,” he says. “She made me simplify everything, which really helped. There are only two of us on the line, my menu would have been too much for us.”

The Lanai City Grille menu still has Gannon touches—the signature crab dip and the meatloaf with barbecue sauce from Joe’s in Wailea, both worth eating, but both of which we skipped, since I’d had them recently from their original Maui kitchen.

The rest of the menu is aimed at comfort food, but at a very high level. Take, for instance, the Kurobuta pork shank, brine-cured with a touch of maple syrup, braised for three or four hours, then roasted, touched with a demiglace, and served over a savory dried apple and shallot compote and potato puree.