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.)
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.
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.
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
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.