Dining: Coasting Through Kohala's New Restaurants

Three new reasons to check out the Big Island’s dining scene.
Big Island Restaurants

The bar at Monettes, which serves sophisticated  American-French food.

Photo: Olivier Koning

It’s hard not to love the Big Island’s Kohala Coast: the luxury resorts set like emerald oases in the jet-black lava fields; the rolling hills of ranching country; the sparkling white observatories on Mauna Kea. Not to mention some of the best food in the state. I had a long weekend, a plane ticket and plans to eat at three new Kohala restaurants. At times, life can be agreeable.
 

Beach Tree

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai // 72-100 Kaupulehu Dr., Kailua-Kona, Big Island // Lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., limited menu 3 to 5:30 p.m. // 808-325-8000 // Valet parking, major credit cards. fourseasons.com/hualalai/dining.


Inside Beach Tree.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Among its half-dozen swimming pools, the Four Seasons Hualalai has a big one beachside, complete with Jacuzzis, cabanas and, of course, a bar, in case arduous hours of reclining on a lounge chair require an immediate mai tai.

When the Four Seasons decided to do a $40-million makeover, somebody took a hard look at the prime oceanfront territory occupied by the bar and had an idea. Transform it into a casual restaurant.

Opened late last year, Beach Tree, as it’s called, is one of the most appealing Hawaii eateries I’ve seen, a series of concentric wooden decks leading down to tables on the sand. The restaurant not only has a beach; it also has a tree, a full-canopied beach heliotrope with a gnarly trunk.

Beach Tree is oh-so-deliberately low-key. It could be your friend’s lānai, if your friend’s lānai had a sunset view, 16-foot cathedral ceilings and plenty of furniture that looks rustic but is actually comfortable.

The restaurant requires shoes, but otherwise you can dress for your friend’s lānai, and relax, since the food picks up the no-fuss theme. You can get a pizza, a burger or a chicken Caesar, but that would mean skipping chef Nick Mastrascusa’s contemporary Italian-American menu—on which every single thing sounded good.

Mussels in tomato fennel? Truffled ricotta? I couldn’t choose, and I was still on the appetizers. My wife slammed her menu shut and resumed texting the kids on her phone. “You’re unusually decisive,” I said.


A former Uruguayan professional soccer player, Nick Mastrascusa is now chef of Beach Tree.

Photo: Courtesy of Beach Tree

“There’s a prix fixe,” she said. Ah, yes, on a little menu insert, three courses for $39. In context, a bargain, considering the breakfast buffet at the Four Seasons is $34.

No prix fixe for me. I had to ponder the whole menu, basking in the setting sun, sipping on a cocktail called The Cure. I hoped this improbable concoction (gin, lime, Maraschino liqueur from Croatia, Green Chartreuse) was indeed a cure—a cure for indecision.

Finally, I made up my mind—and almost immediately we had a first course on the table. Hers was called “soup and sandwich.”

“I was thinking of Alan Wong’s soup with the foie gras sandwich,” she said.

“Your expectations may be a little elevated,” I said.

 

 

The soup was tomato, fresh, rich and smooth, dotted with basil, but the grilled cheese sandwich seemed like an afterthought, half-melted cheddar between two unbuttered slices of baguette. “Oh, even you can do better,” she said.

She gazed at my appetizer. “It looks strange, but I’m still envious,” she said. “What is that on your salad, an egg?”

A poached egg atop frisée and asparagus. You cut the egg and the yolk drips onto the crunchy, slightly bitter frisée. Instead of croutons, there were cubes of pork belly, cooked perfectly crispy. Think of it as bacon on steroids.

The entrées provoked more envy. Hers was a fist-sized knot of linguine with prosciutto, sweet peas and radicchio—nice ingredients, but the cream sauce was so thickly reduced, so ponderous with lipids, that it filled you up in a few bites.

“Can I have some of yours?” she said.

Fear jolted me. My entrée was appealing: a deeply infused, red-brown oxtail ragoût on a bed of feather-light gnocchi. “OK, but not all of it,” I said.

Although the oxtail cried out for wine—and Beach Tree has 70 wines available by the glass—I’d become intrigued by bartender Steve Preston’s cocktails. The Cure was so improbably good, I ordered something called a B.G.O.I.T.

B.G.O.I.T. stands for “Big Glass of Iced Tea”—a base of real tea plus a passion-fruit-infused vodka, lime, agave nectar and an ingredient I’d never heard of, Red Stag cherry bourbon liqueur, which gave it just the right touch of sweet fire.

The prix fixe came with a pleasant dessert—a flan tart with ice cream, surrounded by poached apricots. The apricots were grown by Big Island ag pioneer Tane Datta in Kealakekua—and, poached, they were a marvel, warmly apricot-flavored, a touch of spice perhaps, firm yet melting on the tongue.

That would have been the best thing on the table if I hadn’t ordered the banana split. Three scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream, one topped with Waimea strawberries in lime, another with caramelized fresh pineapple, the last with house-made chocolate sauce with 30 percent caramel. Even the bananas were touched with caramelized sugar. It would be hard to imagine a better banana split. In fact, for my money ($12), it’s up there with the Tarte Tatin at Niu’s Le Bistro as the best dessert ever.

On the beach. You had to love it.

Dinner was about $180. As resort dining goes—three courses, plus drinks, coffee and tip—reasonable enough. Work on the grilled cheese sandwich, though.
 

Monettes

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Dr., Kohala Coast, Big Island // 808-443-2850 // Dinner nightly from 6 p.m. // Valet parking, major credit cards, monetteshawaii.com.


From Monettes: Hamachi sashimi and hearts of palm on a Himalayan pink salt brick.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Monettes is a privately owned restaurant tucked into the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, an offshoot of a celebrated Boulder, Colo., restaurant called Flagstaff House, owned by brothers Scott and Mark Monette.

About a year ago, I’d checked in late at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, desperately hungry. Nothing was open. I ended up at Monettes bar, where, mirabile dictu, I could get a coq au vin with foie gras, simmering in a copper pot, simple, powerful, heartwarming stuff, restoring life in my travel-worn body.

Months later I met the Monettes’ chef who whipped up that dish, Matthew Zubrod. Zubrod had flown over for the Oahu food and wine festival, Hawaii Food & Wine Paradise. It was my job to match a wine (Delectus Petite Sirah) with Zubrod’s braised shortribs. Once again, I was impressed.

“Come to the Big Island,” he said. “I’ll cook you dinner.”

Invitation finally accepted. We were doubly lucky, because in addition to Zubrod, owner Mark Monette, chef of Flagstaff House, also happened to be on the Big Island, wearing whites and cooking up a storm right next to Zubrod.

What would you like? Oh, just send out anything, small portions, maybe five courses. My wife, who seemed intrigued by the pleasures the menu promised, had a request. “You think they could make different courses for each of us?” she asked. “That way, instead of five, we’ll get to taste 10 things.”

First course, hers: a lobster soup, not quite a bisque, thickened with rice, not cream, and touched lightly with a trio of Thai flavors, kaffir lime, lemongrass, chilis.
 

 

Monettes’ executive chef, Matthew Zubrod.

Photo: Olivier Koning

First course, mine: Hamachi sashimi, presented on a heavy pink slab. “What is this?” I asked the waiter.

“A Himalayan pink salt brick,” he said.

Oh, sure. I looked it up later. Turns out there is such a thing, mined in Pakistan.

“A salt brick imparts a nice flavor to whatever you put on it,” says Zubrod. “I put the sashimi on top of hearts of palm, because if you don’t eat it right away, the fish gets too salty.”

I wouldn’t know. I ate it right away.

Second course, hers: The waiter approached the table, bearing two plates. My wife spotted the foie gras and said, “I believe that one’s for me.” A nice slice of foie gras, fortunately big enough she couldn’t finish it all.

It’s always a problem what to serve under the foie gras. Chefs tend to go sweet—compotes and pastries. Once I got it served on french toast with chocolate sauce (not quite as bad as it sounds). Zubrod put his atop a slice of pineapple, a good as well as regionally appropriate idea. Pineapple is naturally sweet, but also acid. Zubrod grilled the slice with a little chili oil and black pepper.

Second course, mine: An oyster baked in a corn bread crust and a crab cake, with corn and jalapeno relish. You’ll have to give me a pass on this course. I ate it, but I was so focused on getting my share of foie gras, all I remember is the oysterish blast and the muted zing of local yellow jalapeño.

Third course: This was the fish course. First, a firm fillet of ono, wrapped with a band of prosciutto, in a butter sauce given a pleasantly sharp edge by capers.

The second: an onaga fillet atop sautéed bananas, roasted red peppers and a dab of macadamia-nut risotto. Sounds terrible, right? Like one of those “Hawaiian-style” recipes gone totally wrong. Here, it worked: the vegetative edge of the peppers cut the sweetness of the banana, and the textures were perfectly controlled.

Fourth course: Break out the hats and hooters! We got two meat courses that we could hardly believe.

Hers: a quail lollipop, that is, a French-trimmed quail drumstick wrapped in pancetta. “That’s Mark’s classic,” laughs Zubrod. After putting in a couple of decades in various Ritz-Carlton hotels, Zubrod cooked for a while in a small Aspen restaurant near Flagstaff House. “Mark used to bring that to every food event we did together. I kept telling him, No, no, you can’t do the quail again. But he loves that dish.”
Rightly so: simple, direct, powerful flavors—Monette’s signature—served with a mushrooms and a dab of polenta.

Mine was even better, if harder to figureout: a square of steak—What is this? It doesn’t exactly taste like beef, but it’s tender. It’s buffalo, atop a risotto. But risotto with—what? Tart dark cherries? It turned out they were something called jaboticaba, also “trunk cherries,” from an exotic fruit tree cultivated by Tane Datta of Adaptations, who also grew Beach Tree’s apricots.

After two great meat courses, it didn’t seem like the meal could go anywhere more interesting. I underestimated the kitchen.

Dessert, savory: Truffle cheesecake. And no, not chocolate truffle cheesecake. Black truffles with their deep, dark fungal flavors, in a rich savory cheesecake, a green salad on the side. I was blown away.

“Thought I’d send that out instead of a cheese course,” said Zubrod. “I stole that recipe from my mentor at Ritz-Carlton.” That mentor would be Yvon Goetz, who’s now garnering a reputation at a Los Angeles restaurant called The Winery.

Dessert, sweet: This didn’t look like much. A coconut lemon tart on one side of the plate; on the other, a small mound of poached pineapple and papaya. The lemon and the coconut shined through the tart; the fruit, poached in a simple syrup, tasted exactly right.

“That’s one of the best dinners we’ve ever had,” said my wife. I had to agree. Tasting menus at Monettes change constantly. They run $75 to $120 apiece, and, if you’re going to have buffalo, foie gras and truffle cheesecake all in the same meal, figure the high end.
 

Village Burger

Parker Ranch Shopping Center // 67-1185 Mamalahoa Highway, Kamuela // 808-885-7319 // Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. // Major credit cards, free parking, villageburgerwaimea.com.


The burgers at Village Burger are pasture raised Big Island beef, fresh ground and hand shaped.

Photo: Olivier Koning

You cannot live by multicourse dinners alone. Sometimes you need a burger. On the Big Island, you drive up to the ranching town of Waimea and eat at Village Burger.

Village Burger is owned by chef Edwin Goto, who used to do multicourse dinners with the best of them. Goto was the chef who put the Lodge at Koele on the culinary map. Under his direction, the Lodge once won the triple crown in the Zagat Hawaii Guide: best food, service and ambiance.

Goto went on to Manele Bay on Lanai and then the Mauna Lani on the Big Island. He’d moved to the Big Island, he told me, so he could spend his time talking to ranchers and farmers—“the most honest people in the world.”

From the Mauna Lani and its big salary and five restaurants, his next move was—his own burger joint in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center, a tiny place with hardly any seats.

Still, all that time talking to Big Island ranchers and farmers paid off.

Goto’s Village Burgers are made from pasture-raised Big Island beef, antibiotic- and hormone-free, select cuts of which Goto grinds and hand-shapes daily.

 

 

From hotel chef to burger joint: Edwin Goto of Village Burger.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Unable to choose, we ordered three burgers for the two of us. Two were beef, a Hawaiian Ranch Burger (“Depends on which ranch has beef that day,” says Goto) and a Wagyu beef burger from Kahua Ranch, just 20 minutes up the mountain. The third was that relatively rare, new Big Island product, Hawaiian Red Veal.

All three were remarkable, thick, handmade patties, juicy, not greasy, touched only with salt and pepper and the grill. The rancher’s beef was a little brighter in flavor than the Wagyu, whose flavor ran deeper on the finish. The veal was a scootch drier, of course, but wonderfully light on the palate. All of them tasted like real meat.

Everything you can get on the burger—tomato marmalade, avocado, goat cheese—is raised within a couple of miles of the restaurant. The buns are from Holy’s Bakery in Kapaau.

Make sure to order Goto’s housemade fries covered with what he calls Parmesan goop. Rich, salty, sticky, cheesy.

Goto came out from behind the counter. “Try these,” he said. Milkshakes with ice cream from Tropical Dreams, a company located all of a mile away. Big, thick, rich shakes. “People ask how I can charge $6 for a milkshake,” says Goto. “I’m not going to sell anyone a milkshake that doesn’t have a lot of real ice cream in it.”

He darted behind the counter, where he hangs out 10 or 11 hours a day. “What’s it like running a tiny burger joint after major hotel kitchens?” I asked.

 “At the end of day, I feel like I’ve really done something,” he said, “even if it is only make burgers.”

My wife looked at the check: $7.50 for the Ranchers, $8.50 for veal and $11 for Wagyu. “Same prices as almost everywhere,” she said. Then to Edwin, “When are you going to come to Oahu?”

“Oahu’s possible,” he said. “Depends on lease rents.”

Somebody please cut him a deal. 

John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.