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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At The Ritz Carlton’s Banyan Tree, a Zinfandel gastrique marries seared ahi and foie.

photo: josh fletcher

Even in the case of the chef: Jojo Vazquez had left his chef de cuisine post at The Banyan Tree to open Morimoto Waikiki with the Iron Chef. A few years later, he returned to The Ritz Carlton, where he was welcomed back to his former job, an uncommon occurrence in an industry where separated chefs and restaurants can harbor resentment like a couple after a messy divorce. It appears that at The Ritz, such matters are handled with the same grace as the clearing of broken glasses.

Vazquez puts on a decadent menu: a seafood sausage garnished with ikura and pumpernickel crumbles, one providing a taste of the sea, the other of earth; and beef Rossini, in which seared foie gras rests on a medallion of tenderloin. The best application of foie gras on this menu, though, is the foie on ahi, lending fat to lean fish, and a Zinfandel gastrique (providing sweet and sour) marrying the two, happily ever after.

Roasted hapuu (Hawaiian grouper) is a fish with the heft of lobster, lightened with a creamy puree of salsify (a type of root vegetable that tastes like potato) and a tangle of crisp salsify chips. It is a dish of white on white on white, with only a scattering of truffle dust, which adds visual contrast, but surprisingly little in terms of flavor.

Pork belly buns are a bit tepid, both in temperature and taste, with an oddly sweet barbecue sauce. At a bar around town, they might be perfectly fine, but here, it feels like I am handed fake gems when I am expecting a diamond as big as the Ritz.

Mostly, however, dishes exceed my ridiculous expectations. I’ve never had beef tongue served as a single cut like a tenderloin, but, as such, it has a pleasantly tender chew and its deep beefiness stands up to a complex mole sauce of baritone chiles mixed with lemon’s tenor. Dessert features caramel popcorn, as humble as a box of Cracker Jacks, but paired with a tart Meyer lemon curd, soft lavender financiers and popcorn ice cream, it becomes my favorite treat in my travels.
 

Kauai : Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill

Kukuiula Village Shopping Center, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Poipu, (808) 742-7117, josselins.com.
Price range: $5 to $37
 


The sangria cart at Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill: just try to resist.

photo: kicka witte

Many of the original HRC chefs have recently opened new places. Mark Ellman’s Honu; Sam Choy’s Kai Lani on the Big Island; Alan Wong’s Amasia on Maui; Peter Merriman, who is conquering every island like Kamehameha. So far, my favorite of the HRC 2.0 restaurants is Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill. With this restaurant, Jean Marie Josselin proves that cooking isn’t just a young person’s game.

At an age when other chefs are stepping out of the kitchen—Thomas Keller openly admits to being more of an owner than a restaurant chef these days— Josselin still cooks in the restaurant every night.

“I was actually ready to go take a corporate position in Asia,” he says, “but I realized that my creative years were not over, I missed the running of a business.”

More like six businesses. At one time, Josselin had six restaurants on all the Islands and in Vegas. By 2008, he had closed them all and, for two years, travelled to Europe and Asia. “Fifteen years cooking in your restaurants do not leave too much time to research,” he says. “This time was a great healing time, a refresher, if you will, used to explore other cultures.” He flew to Spain, where tapas range from humble to haute; sampled street food in Thailand and Taiwan (“one-bite wonders” he calls it); and explored Japan and China, “the original one-bite kings.” When he came back, he knew his new place would serve small plates and “a menu that reflects my heritage, traveling and love for unusual combinations.”

Unusual combinations, indeed. There’s a refreshing watermelon salad with strawberries, roasted to bring out all their sweetness, in a minty vanilla vinaigrette. The most delightful and intriguing dish of the night is an avocado sampler, with avocado in various preparations: roasted, fried in tempura batter, pureed into a light mousse on top of avocado panna cotta, the latter presented like a cupcake. A foam of dashi shiitake mushroom brings earthiness; a smidge of peanut butter, nuttiness.

(There are more than 100 varieties of avocado grown in Hawaii. If more restaurants could provide such a brilliant showcase of our Islands’ avocadoes, maybe we could sever our dependence on the imported Hass.)

A pork belly braised for 36 hours and lacquered with a rosemary orange honey, is not as soft as I would have expected, but a puree of apple kimchee provides a piquant counterpart.

Scallop pillows (like the dumplings you find at dim sum) come bathed in a coconut cardamom broth; they are fine, but the most fascinating ingredient in the dish are the “drunken” grapes, marinated in mint liqueur for shocking zip.

There are a few other modern techniques used here and there, such as powdered goat cheese snow on a corn crème brûlée, the goat cheese melting at the heat of the tongue, providing contrast to the sweet, textbook-perfect brûlée. This could just as easily have been on the dessert menu.

For a real dessert, vanilla-ice-cream profiteroles are elevated by a small carafe of warm, melted chocolate, from which you can pour generously.

I also have to mention the sangria cart, with three types of sangria—lychee, pomegranate and traditional—rolled out like a dim sum cart. How could you say no?

“You know, there is no other business like the food business,” Josselin says. “It is an open window on society, a direct image on the history of a country.” And in this case, the history of a chef. 

For images on the dishes mentioned in this article (avocado cupcake, vanilla ice cream profiteroles, and more), visit Biting Commentary.

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