Favorite restaurants on Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai
Must try: Holuakoa Gardens and Cafe (Hawaii Island), Honu (Maui), The Banyan Tree (Maui), Josselin's Tapas Bar and Grill (Kauai.)
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For a lot of us, Neighbor Island dining is about the past, visiting perfectly preserved institutions seemingly untouched by time: Sam Sato, Hamura’s Saimin, Manago Hotel, where the pork chops are as tasty as the side of nostalgia. “When I go back to the Big Island, I go where the food hasn’t changed since I was a kid, where the pork katsu is huge and there’s gravy all over everything,” a friend says, in a tone that asks me not to judge.
I get it. There’s nothing like the kind of place where the auntie running the eatery is as essential to the dining experience as the food.
But we all ought to get out more. Plenty of Neighbor Island restaurants look to the future and live in the wired now, where culinary ideas are exchanged fast and furiously. Chefs are traveling and bringing back influences from all continents to create modern, only-in-Hawaii restaurants.
Big Island: Holuakoa Gardens and Café
76-5900 Old Government Road, Holualoa, (808) 322-2233, holuakoacafe.com.
Price range: Appetizers $5.50 to $13.50; entrées $16.50 to $32
“I’m a no-name chef in the middle of nowhere,” says Wilson Read, chef at Holuakoa Gardens and Café. Maybe so, but his brisket certainly deserves a name: amazing. Generous slices of soft, soft braised beef in a caramelized onion jus that tastes like French onion soup, on a medley of local summer squash, turnips, white and orange carrots, and cherry tomatoes. (Only in Hawaii could all these be local and in season at the same time.)
This “no-name chef” grew up on an 80-acre farm bounded by two rivers in Maine and, the way Read tells it, he had the romantic agrarian lifestyle to match. His family grew its own food, fished, harvested mussels and clams; his grandmother baked delicious-smelling things like cornbread and cranberry scones. “It was a Martha Stewart-type of lifestyle,” he says. “I always knew about food and the importance and joy of communing at the table. That was part of my family.”
For those of us who did not grow up in a Barbara Kingsolver memoir, we must settle for eating at Holuakoa Café, where responsibly-sourced meats and vegetables are served on its outdoor terrace, under trellised vines intertwined with white Christmas lights. No river runs through it, but a trickling koi pond does. It is like the lanai I’ve always wanted to host dinner parties on.
All the meats served are local—quail, chicken, fish, beef, pork. Read even has someone in Honaunau raising Muscovy ducks for him. I can’t think of any other restaurant in the state that can boast an entirely local meat menu (even places like Town and Salt make concessions and import chicken and seafood such as mussels).
If Read can’t get the protein locally, he doesn’t serve it. The compromise, then—if you could call it that—is perhaps a slightly less varied menu. Over the course of two meals (a dinner and brunch), we indulge in three preparations of pork of all different cuts. Smoked pork shoulder melts softly into risotto, as comforting as turkey jook (rice porridge) the day after Thanksgiving. Pork belly confit, cooked in its own fat and then fried to a crisp, is balanced with a succotash of sweet corn, green beans and tomatoes. A slab of headcheese is less fatty than most, cut thick like meatloaf, and wears a crisp fennel and walnut slaw.
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