Dining: Something to Eat on Kauai
At last, I have had a trio of good meals on the Garden Isle.
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.
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.
Kalaheo Cafe & Coffee Co.
2-2560 Kaumualii Highway, Kalaheo // (808) 332-5858 // Breakfast and lunch: Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., until 2 p.m. on Sunday. Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.kalaheo.com
“It’s nice to see a serious restaurant on Kauai,” I had told Sanchez at his restaurant.
“Tell me about it,” he said. “I love to go out and eat. In the six months I was here before we got the restaurant open, it was tough on me that there wasn’t much.”
He said he often ate breakfast or lunch at Kālaheo Cafe & Coffee Co., a place that had been recommended to me by Peter Merriman, who noted that former hotel chef John Ferguson has been doing a bang-up job there. Said Merriman, “It’s simple food, but it’s done right.”
That was my experience at lunch. As you walk in, there’s a big, red sign with “House Rules:” Grab menu/grab table/order at counter/enjoy.
Enjoy I did, a fish sandwich on whole-wheat toast, the bread fresh and housemade, the fish fresh and perfectly grilled ono, the sandwich loaded with avocado, jack cheese and a citrus-dill mayo. On the side, a salad of vibrant greens, tomato, onion, carrot, sprouts.
Of course, I wanted fries with that: a huge basket full, seasoned with cilantro and garlic.
Kālaheo does a more formal dinner menu four nights a week, unfortunately nights I wasn’t going to be on Kauai. But if it can put together a quick $20 lunch that good, next time I’m going back for dinner, maybe the orange-bourbon-glazed chicken.
5-5161 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei // (808) 826-7081 // Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 6 to 9:30 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.restaurantbaracuda.com
Fortunately, my Kauai friend Janice likes to eat. Likes to eat so much that the next evening she was to pick me up—I was sunburned and bushed from a boat trip to snorkel off Niihau—and drive me all the way from Kauai’s south shore to the North Shore, through what passes on Kauai for rush-hour traffic.
All to eat at a little place called Bar Acuda, in the old Hanalei School building turned shopping complex.
Bar Acuda is a tapas restaurant, and the only one in Hawaii that sticks strictly to its concept. Its owner is Jim Moffat, an award-winning San Francisco chef who, in 2003, took a surfing trip to Kauai and decided to stay.
Says Moffat, “In Europe, I liked the way you’d go from place to place, sharing little nibbly things, a scallop and an inch of wine here, some chorizo and an inch of wine at a place across the street. It’s a convivial, social way to eat.”
Bar Acuda’s menu has small plates, only. “It was a hard sell in the beginning,” he says. “People in Hawaii wanted a big plate of food.” Now that the restaurant has been open for nearly five years, and the tapas concept is more widespread, it’s no problem, says Moffat.
It certainly was no problem for us, except we wanted every single thing on the menu and were forced to choose.
We chose well for the first course. Three simple ingredients on a plate: thin green apple slices; a slice of California’s most famous goat cheese, Humboldt Fog; and one more item that made this all come alive, a chunk of honeycomb from beekeeper Chester Danbury, who keeps 400 hives on Kauai’s North Shore.
It was the best honey I’ve tasted since Greece, lambent and oozy, from bees who had buzzed through ironwood and acacia trees. Add together the snap of the apples, the sharpness of the aged goat cheese, the sweetness of the honey, and you’ve got a classic trilogy.
How to follow this? A day boat scallop that it took two of us to eat, sort of the Quarter Pounder of scallops. It arrived ensconced in mashed potatoes, with a reduced chicken stock fortified with truffles. This was $16 for a single scallop—and worth it.
Time to lighten up: a salad. Shrimp grilled and marinated in olive oil and lemon, and tossed with fresh, crunchy, slightly bitter frisée. Sprinkle with large, but not hard, croutons made from the crust of the Italian-style bread served at the table. Oh, and throw in some chopped egg, a few green beans and some flat-leaf parsley, dress very lightly with olive oil, letting the lemon on the shrimp serve as the acid. We ate every bite.
Then a false note: a large link of housemade chorizo, with which we were not enthralled. The pepper mix was outstanding (a blend of six different peppers, from Spain, New Mexico and California, Moffat told me later). But the meat mix was not all pork, and it was crumbly.
“You know what went wrong?” said Moffat when I told him later. “Our chorizo likes to hang. If it ages long enough, it develops a great, solid texture. But sometimes we sell so much, you get one that hasn’t aged enough.”
It was time to get serious. A small, double lamb chop, tasty in itself. Even better was the pool of romesco it sat in. Romesco looks like tomato sauce, but it’s not, it’s a sauce of some antiquity from Spain. You can tell because it’s still usually thickened in the medieval fashion, with bread crumbs and ground almonds. There’s a bit of tomato, but the red is from peppers, in Spain from romesco peppers, in the United States usually from roasted red peppers. It’s a rare sauce that can outshine rare lamb, and this one did.
By this time, we were decently full, though not so full we didn’t order a pot au crème, a chocolate pudding so thick the spoon stands up in it. And my favorite dessert, an affogado, a simple Italian dessert, with a scoop of ice cream, usually vanilla, over which you pour a shot of hot espresso and consume immediately.
At Bar Acuda, you get a cup of espresso with a tiny dollop of ice cream on top. Moffat explained it was made by the barman and simpler because it didn’t need to get to the table immediately, but, really, an $8 dessert?
That said, dinner was not terribly expensive, $130 with tip and two glasses of prosecco, and we were happy, happy enough that I wished Oahu had a Bar Acuda, which struck me as an extraordinary thing to say about a Kauai restaurant.