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.
(page 3 of 3)
Opelo Plaza, 65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea, (808) 885-6822, Lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., dinner nightly 5:30 to 9 p.m.
It’d be wrong to visit Waimea and skip Hawaii’s original farm-to-table restaurant, Merriman’s.
Besides, the kitchen had changed hands. For five years Merriman’s had been captained by a remarkably talented former New Yorker, Neil Murphy. Murphy has gone on to become corporate chef for the five Merriman’s restaurants in Hawaii, and executive chef of Merriman’s Kapalua (where he’d better get on his game, because I’m expecting deliciousness).
At Waimea, he’s been replaced by Allen Hess, who worked with him for a year and half. Hess has an exceptional track record. He apprenticed under celebrated Louisiana chef John Besh in New Orleans, did a few San Francisco hotels, then cooked under Jackie Lau at Roy’s Waikoloa and Alan Wong at Wong’s Hualalai Grill.
“Alan was great to me, in terms of exposing me to a lot of Hawaii food culture,” says Hess.
Hess is legendary in little Waimea town for his wild-boar bacon. People stand in line for his BLTs at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
Wild boar? Semiwild, anyway. “We get them from Lloyd Case, who traps them, crossbreeds with his own Berkshires and Durocs,” says Hess. Case then turns them back loose in macadamia-nut orchards and traps them again full grown. “They fatten on macadamia nuts, what could be better?” says Hess.
Hess, because he thought it was fun, started making bacon from them.
Fun, indeed. Cured with salt, honey, brown sugar, fennel seed and chili pepper, smoked over kiawe wood, Hess’s bacon is like no other, sweet and spicy and not too smoky. Best of all, it’s thick, not fatty, more like a slice of meat than breakfast bacon.
Demand was so great at the Farmers’ Market that he finally stopped going. “Sometimes people come up to the back door of the restaurant, asking, ‘Could we buy some bacon?’ Like it was a drug deal or something,” he says.
A more direct way to get some is in his loco moco, which has just become my favorite.
No hamburger in Hess’s, just wild-boar bacon with a poached egg. The rice is jasmine, sautéed in a garlic-infused butter with onions and mac nuts. Add a sprig of watercress and, instead of gravy, a much lighter, tomato-pineapple-jalapeño vinaigrette.
“The vinaigrette’s what I usually do,” says Hess. “But this lady came to the back door last week with some awesome eggplants, so for three or four months while she’s still got them, I’m doing an eggplant-chili pepper butter. It’s beautiful.”
I regret not being on the Big Island to eat all the time.
Of course, there’s plenty of other classic Merriman food on the menu.
The spinach salad from Waimea’s Honopua Farms was so vibrant and green it seemed to be growing off the plate.
Among the entrées, you can get leg of lamb raised just 10 minutes up the mountain, a lamb shoulder braised in red wine and tomatoes, and roasted broccoli with a cannellini bean purée.
Foodie Joan Namkoong, who created the KCC Farmers’ Market and now lives in Waimea, joined us for dinner. “I’m now a COW,” she said. “A Carnivore on Weekends.”
It not being a weekend, she insisted on ordering Hess’s taro cakes. Sounded terrible to me, yet they were soft and substantial, amped up with ginger-curry sour cream, and served on an array of haricot verte, mushrooms and so forth.
“The key is steaming the taro, not boiling it,” says Hess. “If you leave off the sour cream, it’s vegan.” Don’t leave it off unless you have to, it’s delicious.
A carnivore most days, I wanted more wild boar. Hess orders a whole pig every week, so I was helping use it up.
At Merriman’s you usually get the meat two ways. For instance, pork shoulder braised in boar stock, with kabocha and vibrant, just-picked corn. But that’s not all. There were housemade ravioli filled with goat cheese and pork confit, with a generous sprinkling of pork confit and spinach on top.
This was the richest, most satisfying entrée plate I remember in a long time, the ravioli given a fresh bite by a reduction of vine-ripened tomatoes.
“We do the braised meats to be able to afford the roasts,” says Hess. “We’re committed to using the whole animal.” Hess is grateful to Merriman for insisting on it. “Peter lets us get into the cooking and stay in the cooking.”
We were finishing up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing here?” said Peter Merriman.
“What are you?” I said, having seen him far more frequently on Kauai and Maui than in little Waimea.
“Thought I’d drop by,” he said. We had a glass of wine or two. Merriman likes drinkable, alternative wines—and the way to go here is the $28 red wine sampler, a 2-ounce pour of four unusual, but powerful reds, like Grant Burge “Holy Trinity,” a grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre blend from the Barossa Valley, and, even rarer, a Spanish Finca Sandoval, which the menu accurately describes as “an inky purple gorilla.”
“How are we doing on the food?” Merriman finally asked. “It’s good?”
Yes. Merriman’s remains the quintessential Big Island eatery. Even though almost every other restaurant now insists it is farm-to-table, Merriman’s is still the place that gets the best local ingredients and simply lets them shine.
This is high-end dining on the Big Island, figure $80-plus a person, but it’s good to know that much of that money gets directed into the slim pocketbooks of Big Island farmers and ranchers.