A Month of Vegetarian Cuisine
Vegivore Month: Three high-end restaurants take vegetarian cuisine from earthy to ethereal.
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“What do you do when someone walks into Hoku’s and wants a vegetarian meal?” I asked.
“Take care of ’em,” he said.
I made a reservation, once again with my carnivorous family. While wife and child disported themselves through the menu (sushi, ahi musubi, short ribs), I sent word to Hirabayashi, let’s go with the vegetables.
He was slammed, with a party somewhere else in the hotel, but, in his spare time, he whipped up seven courses.
The vegetarian tasting menu started off conventionally enough, with Hoku’s usual soup and salad. Hirabayashi had dressed up the Waimānalo greens with hearts of palm, striking red and white slices of watermelon radish. And, as if he knew how to push healthy eaters’ buttons, he’d made the dressing with the I’ve-heard-it’s-good-for-you ingredient of the moment—acai berry. The crunch in the salad? Granola.
The soup was Hoku’s tomato, hard to improve on. No cream, just Kula tomatoes slow cooked in stock, herbs and garlic, then warmed in vegetable stock with a few ingredients the kitchen refuses to reveal.
Hirabayashi augmented the soup with a knot of burrata, fresh mozzarella that’s made even softer by wrapping it around cream. The name comes from the Italian burro, or butter, and burrata is virtually butter, just better tasting.
The next two courses demonstrate clearly that veggies can be stars. The first was a double: Kahuku corn and asparagus cooked in a ragu, and Chinese long beans topped with Romesco, an ancient Catalan sauce that’s essentially roasted peppers, olive oil and garlic, thickened with ground Marcona almonds. The Catalans serve it with a variety of green onion called calçot. Long beans work fine, their sturdy texture contrasting with the robustness of the sauce.
When you’ve got stars, let them shine. The next course was Big Island tomatoes three ways: a large slice of a red heirloom tomato dressed in olive oil and black lava salt; a thicker slice of yellow tomato, drizzled with pesto and balsamic vinegar; and baby tomatoes marinated in a vinaigrette. Sometimes cooking is just getting out of the way.
Hirabayashi, perhaps worried I wasn’t getting enough to eat (I was), sent out something serious. It wasn’t a big mound of risotto, a good thing, because it was lavish. Not only was it richly cheesy and filled with Hamakua mushrooms, it was also dotted with shaved truffle. This was so extravagant I almost felt guilty. Not so guilty I didn’t eat all of it.
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