Dining: Something to Eat on Kauai
At last, I have had a trio of good meals on the Garden Isle.
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Instead, in a large white bowl, we got a splendid glowing, glistening cube of slow-braised and then pan-seared pork belly. This wasn’t kālua pig, but it was rich, deeply flavorful, fatty pork, a bacon lover’s dream, not too huge a portion, which might have been overwhelming.
The pork was propped up on taro gnocchi. Taro gnocchi? Was that possible?
Apparently, yes. These had the proper light, yet biteable, texture of traditional gnocchi, the Italian potato-and-flour creations that end up somewhere between a dumpling and a noodle. Substituting for the potato, and tinging the gnocchi purple, was roasted taro corm. The taro gnocchi had been lightly browned in butter before serving, so they stood up perfectly to the demiglace with its bright, sweet-and-acid tinge of—surprise—pineapple, which cut the fattiness of the pork. There were even a few taro tops amid the gnocchi. Welcome to the luau.
This was nothing like any luau food I had encountered, but it was, the more I thought about it, Hawaii food, common ingredients put together so they worked, powerfully.
If that was different, let me tell you about the poke. A checkerboard, little red and white squares of fish—ahi and waloo—set atop paper-thin, lengthwise slices of Japanese cucumber.
Each white waloo square was topped with wasabi tobiko and tiny curlicues of green onion. The red ahi was topped with orange tobiko and black sesame seeds, sprinkled with drops of shoyu vinaigrette. Tucked underneath the fish was wakame (a seaweed) in sesame oil/mirin dressing. Of course, the plate was sprinkled with red salt.
“This doesn’t look like any poke I’ve ever seen,” said Janice, “but it’s pretty good.” It was poke ingredients, but someone had stepped back and reimagined the dish. Checkerboard poke. Like the “luau” pork, you could dismiss it as whimsical, if it didn’t make so much sense on your taste buds.
At this point, I need to know: Who’s in the kitchen?
After an 18-month search, the Koa Kea imported an executive chef from New Mexico. Before coming to Kauai, Ronnie Sanchez cooked everywhere from the legendary El Bulli in Roses, Spain, to the Crow’s Nest in Anchorage, Alaska, most recently at Culinary Think Tank in Sante Fe.
Sanchez did the chef’s stroll through the dining room in the middle of dinner. We asked about the checkerboard poke: “I took the poke that you’d get in a grocery store or a local grinds place,” he said. “Then I thought, Let me see what I can do with this. After all, people eat with their eyes first and foremost.”
The same sort of thing happened with the luau pork.
Six months before opening, the hotel’s general manager, Chris Steuri, sat him down and said they had to have a luau dish. “I tried everything,” said Sanchez. “I couldn’t work in lomilomi salmon or long rice, they both threw off the balance. But I got the pork, the taro, the pineapple, the luau leaves.”
After the razzle dazzle of the appetizers, we’d ordered the simplest sounding entrée on the menu. “Steak?” I asked Janice. Enthusiastic nods.
Sanchez’s menu undersells this dish considerably; it’s just steak and fries. But what a steak: 14-ounces of New York strip, yielding to the bite, juicy and rich.
Where did you get this meat? I asked Sanchez.
“Nebraska,” he said. “It took me months to find.” It is, in fact, Imperial Wagyu Beef from Blair, Neb. “I didn’t want to call it Wagyu on the menu,” shrugged Sanchez. “Everyone does that and it’s sort of pretentious.”
It comes with great fries, with a dusting of fine herbs and pecorino Romano cheese. “I didn’t see the cheese,” I told Sanchez. He microplaned it into a “snow cloud,” he said, and dusted it on, using it instead of salt.
Ironically, the Italians don’t eat much pecorino, which is from Sicily. They think it’s too salty. Apparently, they’ve neglected to dust it on their fries.
We were a little full for dessert, but, what the heck, we ordered three anyway. There were ramekins of housemade ice cream—pineapple, chocolate, Meyer lemon and Thai basil.
“Cute little spoon,” said Janice, “but who wants ice cream when you can have this.”
She turned her attention to the dark-chocolate macadamia cake with ginger crème fraîche. I got two small bites, which I ate with a dollop of basil sorbet.
However, I hogged the last of the desserts—a sort of reverse root beer float, that is, root beer ice cream with vanilla soda, accompanied by a large, warm chocolate-chip cookie with mac nuts. It was the sort of thing my mother should have had waiting for me when I came home from third grade. Dinner was $200, with only a small split of champagne. Along with the check came housemade chocolates, the chocolate ganache filling both sweet and savory with, what else, a deft pinch of red salt.