Winners in the Hale Aina Best New Restaurant category often give a snapshot of dining in Hawaii. So what does it look like right now? Refined casual. No restaurant better exemplifies that than Peter Merriman’s Monkeypod Kitchen (Gold; also a Silver award winner for Best Beer Program), which provides a trifecta of comfort food, craft drinks and an open, inviting space. The menu offers favorites such as fish and chips with a tempura-style catch of the day and hand-cut fries, and an unconventional but satisfying saimin—a bowl of noodles from Maui’s Iwamoto Natto Factory, kalua pig, broccoli and peanuts in a smoky broth. Many of the vegetables on Monkeypod’s menu are provided by not-too-far-away MAO Organic Farms. That includes the kale salad and arugula salad with Asian pear, walnuts and blue cheese. To drink: more than 30 beers on tap, cocktails including the Monkeypod Mai Tai, topped with a honey-lilikoi foam, and a zingy, housemade non-alcoholic ginger beer.
Lucky Belly (Silver) offers a similar winning formula of style and sustenance with a beloved Honolulu staple—ramen. Washbasin-size bowls of ramen come with pork belly and bacon (Belly Bowl) or brisket, short rib and an oxtail dumpling (Beast Bowl). A short menu of appetizers includes a beef tartare perked up with togarashi and capers, and a crispy chicharron and watercress salad. Entering Honolulu’s ramen arena against some noodle heavyweights seemed like a ballsy move for this upstart Chinatown newcomer, but with its mix of new ramen takes, terrific appetizers and a well-edited bar of sake and classic and new cocktails, Lucky Belly emerges a winner.
Honolulu also welcomed the return of familiar chefs in new restaurants, such as Rodney Uyehara, who won multiple Hale Aina Awards at the Bistro at Century Center in the past. He stepped out of the spotlight somewhat while at the Moana Surfrider’s Beachhouse, but now, at HASR Bistro (Bronze), he’s picked up right where he left off. His cuisine: updated Continental, as exemplified by the HASR cassoulet, a stew of veal, duck confit, navy beans and sausage; and a seafood pan roast with shellfish and fish in a chili saffron tomato cream broth. And Chai Chaowasaree lightened up his cuisine at Chef Chai (Top Write-In Vote), with entree selections such as a vegetable terrine and green curry sauce and a Pacific Rim cioppino with a creamy coconut broth and zucchini linguine.