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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The portions are hearty, large enough to fill up a farm boy. But delicate touches present themselves throughout, reflecting this farm-boy chef’s French Culinary Institute training in New York: a careful brunoise of carrots, gnocchi paired with a turmeric cream sauce threaded with preserved lemon peel for pops of brightness (though the gnocchi are more like flour dumplings than potato clouds).
It seems so improbable that such a restaurant exists, “in the middle of nowhere,” which, more precisely, is Holualoa, 20 minutes up the mountain above Kona. It has a population of about 6,000 and the main drag of galleries would have you believe most of the residents are artists. In San Francisco, Holuakoa Café would be at home among the other locavore restaurants; in Honolulu, it would be the poster child for the farm-to-table movement. And yet, perhaps it can exist nowhere else. Read says “the people here are similar-minded, trying to express a healthy food system, a healthy community conspired by love.” His local sourcing is enabled by the Big Island, which has the most and cheapest agricultural land in the state. This restaurant, a five-year-old project by a 49-year-old chef channeling Alice Waters, is exactly where it belongs.
1295 Front St., Lahaina, (808) 667-9390, honumaui.com.
Price range: Appetizers $3.50 to $27; entrées $15 to $69
A lot of the seafood in Hawaii is imported. Honu, Mark Ellman’s latest venture, is one of the few establishments that owns up to this simple, sometimes inconvenient truth, by embracing American seafood in an open-air setting on Lahaina shores.
The menu is East Coast and West Coast seafood shack rolled into one, with Dungeness crab cocktails, fried Ipswich clams and Maine lobster rolls, plus a scattering of locally caught ahi dishes and catch-of-the-day preparations. It stirs up memories of coastal cities where I have lived. The Dungeness crab tank at the entrance of Honu reminds me of steam kettles of crab at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. (Sadly, however, the inhabitants of Honu’s tank lack the spunk of Fisherman’s Wharf crabs; at least one of them is belly up. I can only hope the dead ones aren’t served.)
Sweet chunks of Maine lobster coated lightly in mayonnaise overflow from a properly top-split, toasted Portuguese sweetbread roll. A bite takes me back to Boston college days; while others raided fraternity houses for free beer, we’d sneak lobsters from their walk-in refrigerators.
If Honu could just throw a beach clambake, my seafood nostalgia would be complete, and I’d be happy as, well, a clam.
But new memories are to be made here at Honu, sitting across from my date (my marriage to whom has signaled the end of fraternity-house raiding). It could hardly be more romantic, with the waves lapping at our feet . . . except we have just ordered the fried pig ears. Maybe the Pacific oysters on the half shell would have been a better aphrodisiac. The pig ears are actually addictive, if unromantic (even the whisper of lavender in the batter doesn’t change this); they’re like a porky, fatty version of fried calamari. They beg to be chased with beer, to wash away some of the grease.
More charming is the Dore-style monchong, dipped in flour and egg, sautéed, and finished with a lemon caper butter sauce. The fish is moist and meaty, propped up on a bed of nutty quinoa punctuated with pomegranate seeds. What really elevates this dish, though, is the dusting of dill pollen, which delivers a fresh, grassy punch with more intensity than dill alone.
Ellman’s restaurants have occupied both ends of the casual/formal spectrum; he owns Mala Ocean Tavern, next door, and started (and sold) Maui Tacos. Honu doesn’t exist as much in between as it does at each endpoint, with $39-and-up entrées and $16 pizzas, a concept that seems to appeal to families. There are many: a family to our left with a child folding slices of pizza into his mouth, another on the other side with a boy expertly cracking a salt-and-pepper crab (he would make a Chinese mother proud). I’m not a huge fan of the pizzas. While the pizza toppings are fresh and flavorful, like a spicy Italian sausage with arugula atop a bright San Marzano sauce, the crust is more California Pizza Kitchen—sweet and dense—than airy, Neopolitan-style.
Maui: The Banyan Tree at The Ritz Carlton
1 Ritz Carlton Drive, Kapalua, (808) 669-6200
Price: $80 for a four-course menu
Next to us, a man, sitting at the head of a large party, gestures too wildly and sends a bottle of wine flying into glasses. A team of servers descends and cleans up the spilled wine and broken glasses while the man stands to the side. (“Such a good wine,” he laments.) In less than five minutes, the whole episode is over, a new bottle of wine is opened, joviality resumes and all is right again in the bubble of The Ritz Carlton. It seems there are few things The Ritz Carlton cannot fix.