Big Island Restaurants in Waimea
Small Town, Big Flavors: In Big Island’s little Waimea, it’s a short distance from farm (or ranch) to table.
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The most interesting town in Hawaii? Honolulu, of course. But in second place? Waimea on the Big Island. Waimea is a town so interesting it needs two names. In the 19th century, King David Kalākaua suggested renaming it Kamuela, after his friend and the kingdom’s one-time foreign minister, Samuel Parker, of the Parker Ranch Parkers.
King or no king, the name never stuck. Sure, the sign on the Post Office reads Kamuela, but all 8,500 people who live there call it Waimea, as it was for centuries before the monarchy.
What does Waimea have going for it? The home of the first paniolo in the Islands, the birthplace of slack key guitar. And that’s just for starters.
In addition to the largest ranch in the state and a half-dozen others, the town now has two major observatories, tied by fiber optics to the telescopes atop Mauna Kea. A private boarding school. Three theaters and a significant art gallery, which recently relocated the entire historic Madge Tennant Gallery from Honolulu.
It’s surrounded by scores of small farms, growing everything from Cymbidium orchids to organic strawberries.
It’s a short distance from farm (or ranch) to table here, which has turned Waimea into something of a culinary mecca, especially for a town that’s barely a quarter of the size of Oahu’s Kailua.
It’s always worth driving to Waimea from the resorts of the Kona and Kohala coasts, just to wind through the green hills, breathe the cool air and take in the soaring vista of Mauna Kea.
While you’re being uplifted by the scenery, you might as well have something to eat.
Red Water Café
65-1299 Kawaihae Road, Waimea, (808) 885-9299, Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 9 p.m. Free parking, major credit cards.
For a place that’s only been open for a couple of months, Red Water Café has a lot of history.
Waimea literally means “red water,” and the red water in question used to bubble up from a stream just behind the café.
In the ’70s, a group of counterculture entrepreneurs took a roadside blockhouse, cut down trees up on nearby Opelu hillside and dragged the logs down to the site. They spent a year giving the building a handcrafted wood interior.
This original Red Water Café had a reputation as a rowdy cowboy bar, but it was more than that. Its house band was Taj Mahal. Carole King and Cat Stevens played there.
In the ’80s, with Merriman’s opening more or less across the street, the Red Water ran dry. Its head chef, David Palmer, went on to create Café Pesto, successful in both Kawaihae and Hilo.
The building was home to Hans-Peter Hager’s popular Edelweiss restaurant until Hager retired in 2007. Then, for a fleeting moment, it was a restaurant called Fujimama’s.
Last year, chef David Abrahamson bought Fujimama’s and re-renamed it Red Water Café.
“I had to,” says Abrahamson. “My girlfriend, Heidi, practically grew up in the old Red Water. Her father was one of the partners.”
Heidi had induced Abrahamson, who was cooking at the Beverley Hills Hotel, to move to Waimea in the first place. He then put in eight years in the kitchen at Merriman’s.
Abrahamson debuted Red Water last December, changing Fujimama’s Chinese-Japanese fusion cuisine into something a little less definable.
He kept the sushi bar, and he does some mainstream Japanese dishes. For instance, vegetable tempura, which included a whole bok choy leaf, long and wide but thin and fragile. Somehow it came out intact as tempura.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” explains Abrahamson. “I used to fry bok choy leaves as garnish, the same way chefs fry basil leaves. This was just the next step.”
Then there’s some fusion—local beef grilled on Asian vegetables, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, kabocha. But the vegetables are in a classic European beurre blanc.
Then there’s some stuff that’s sort of semi-fused.
For instance, Abrahamson serves vichyssoise with uni (sea urchin). You’d expect he’d blend the uni into the vichyssoise.
Instead, the uni floats on top, isolated from the potato-leek soup by a bright-green shiso leaf.
It turned out to be very good uni, mild, creamy, rich. It would have perhaps been brilliant, had it been integrated into the soup.
What gives? I asked Abrahamson. “I used to mix them together, but for every five I sent out, I got back four, with complaints about the uni flavor.”
Abrahamson, who loves uni, keeps the soup on the menu in hopes of making converts. He’s got a long road ahead of him. My dining companion, a not unsophisticated lady, took one microbite of the uni and shuddered: “Why do you always have to order the most radical thing on the menu?”
Radical me, I also ordered a Thai calamari Caesar salad. That, too, was barely fused. It was OK calamari, an OK salad, but one sat atop the other, and they were barely speaking to one another.
All was forgiven, however, at dessert. The cheesecake, topped with caramelized pineapple, was light as a feather. “How do you do that?” I asked Abrahamson.
“Carefully,” he said. “Most people over-whip the cheese. You have to massage it into the egg mixture.”
Our dinner for two was $160 with tip, including a bottle of prosecco and a glass of pinot noir to set off the steak.
A quiet fellow played guitar in the corner of the restaurant. Every once in a while it would intrude upon our consciousness that he was playing well indeed. We got up—and realized it was master guitarist Charles Brotman.
You’re likely to see Brotman at the Four Seasons. But in a neighborhood eatery? Even if it is his neighborhood, with his Grammy-winning Lava Tracks studio just down the road.
“Charley, good to see you,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“The sushi, it’s really good,” he said.
We hadn’t even sampled. Next time.