Dining: Something to Eat on Kauai
At last, I have had a trio of good meals on the Garden Isle.
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For decades, I’ve been telling people there’s nothing to eat on Kauai.
I would shudder at the thought of a sojourn there, condemned to salad bars, overdone steaks and overpriced grilled fish, with maybe a buffalo burger thrown in.
In fact, my favorite place to eat on the Garden Burger Isle—and this shows you how desperate my straits—was a vegan restaurant called Blossoming Lotus. Eating the occasional meal of vegan food never killed anyone, and the Blossoming Lotus’ award-winning chef, Mark Reinfeld, cared passionately about what he put on the plate. Although Reinfeld has just published a new cookbook (The 30-Minute Vegan), the Blossoming Lotus restaurant has closed.
On the other hand, one must never abandon hope. It used to be that the food was disappointing on Maui, and now Maui rivals and perhaps beats Honolulu in many respects.
I heard a faint whisper that Kauai had given birth to a few good restaurants. I was dubious, of course, but I was flying over anyway. I had two days and three restaurants on my list.
Let’s start with the best.
Koa Kea Hotel and Resort // 2251 Poipu Road // (808) 828-8888 // Breakfast daily 6:30 to 11:30 p.m.; dinner nightly 6 to 9 p.m. // Valet parking, major credit cards // www.koakea.com
The lava-rock foundations and walls of the old Poipu Beach Hotel survived Hurricane Iniki. But, whipped by the winds, the ocean poured through the small beachside hotel’s interiors, totally trashing them.
It took 16 and a half years—the delay due to financial considerations, insurance, ownership changes, a slow Kauai economy—but the property’s finally been reborn, as Koa Kea, which bills itself as a luxury boutique hotel.
Its best feature: It was built on the footprint of the old Poipu Beach and has that retro, small-hotel, ’60s feel, with only 121 rooms and a staff that instantly learns your name. Forget something in the lobby, and it’s back in your room before you are.
The new Koa Kea has all sorts of modern luxuries—free wireless, tasteful furnishings, comfortable beds, marble showers, flat-screen televisions, iPod docking stations, in-room espresso machines.
A major luxury is a serious restaurant named Red Salt, for the famous Kauai salt sun dried at ponds a few miles up the coast. It’s a nice-enough looking restaurant, spare, but not austere, with granite tabletops and place mats instead of tablecloths. The main décor is the sweep of picture windows to the garden, pool and ocean—if you don’t count the sprinkle of red dots pasted to the back wall, representing, presumably, a scatter of red salt.
There were four appetizers on the evening’s menu. I looked at my Kauai friend Janice and she looked at me … and we ordered all four.
Since everyone knows everyone else on Kauai, Janice knew our waiter, Lance. Striking the right balance between friendliness and professionalism, Lance returned to tell us, alas, they’d sold out of the bronzed diver scallops with lilikoi beurre blanc and pea sprouts.
Would foie gras do? “It just might,” said Janice.
So the first thing out of the kitchen was a plump crescent of foie gras, nicely browned on the outside, meltaway soft on the inside. The kitchen had the courage to season it with just salt and pepper, a few drops of demiglace on the plate, none of the complex and sweet stuff chefs are fond of dumping on foie gras.
The plate also sported four slices of braised hearts of palm, a sprinkling of inamona (a roasted kukui-nut condiment), both good in themselves, but in context merely decorative, since you’d eat the splendid foie gras with neither. We got two or three bites apiece, so rich, so simple, so good, that it was all we needed.
Next out was a standard high-end restaurant dish—ahi, seared and sliced, crusted with togarashi, the Japanese blend with red and Szechuan peppers.
It’s fashionable to sear ahi with spices and pepper, but fashion is not always a reliable guide. “Too hot, I can’t taste the fish,” complained Janice. Exactly right. The only thing the dish had going for it were the small slices of local orange in an orange reduction. Which, to me if not to Janice, added a sweetness that balanced the heat a little.
The next two appetizers grabbed center stage.
I’d ordered the kālua pork luau—despite the name, which would lead you to expect shards of kālua pork swimming in sauce like squid luau. No.