Opening night: First Hawaii Food + Wine Festival

The slow poached Kauai prawns.

Photo: Lesa Griffith

Look, there’s Hubert Keller and Marcel Vigneron sipping Julie Reiner cocktails (and wow does Marcel have a strong American accent when he drops terms like “c’est chouette”). There’s Christine Quinlan, deputy editor of Food + Wine Magazine, one of the event’s sponsors, being schmoozed by food writers covering the fest. The Hawaii Food + Wine Festival raised the red lanterns for its kick-off event, Streets of Asia: Morimoto & Friends Presented by Hawaiian Airlines, held poolside at the Modern Honolulu last Thursday, Sept. 29.

Co-chaired by Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, the debut event instantly became the state’s premier, uh, food and wine event, bringing in dozens of name-brand chefs from around the world and putting the spotlight on our own talent and ingredients. The festival is also a fundraiser for the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation and the Culinary Institute of the Pacific.

People squeezed past Iona Contemporary Dance performers—in full regalia as they struck poses in the narrow pathways—to get to food booths set up around the pool. Up at the hotel’s “beach,” aka the sand-framed Sunrise Pool, New York cocktail queen Julie Reiner (Pegu Club and Lani Kai—she’s from Kailua) and Honolulu’s Christian Self shook their shakers and poured Singapore Slings and Asian Delicacies (yes, that is the name—it had lychee in it).

Kudos to Yamaguchi and Wong, who, according to the press release, “challenged their celebrity chef friends to prepare dishes with locally grown or sourced ingredients.” Some chefs took the challenge—and the opening night’s theme of Asian street food—to heart, and others didn’t. Mourad Lahlou and Chris Kajioka of San Francisco’s Aziza arrived in Honolulu with only a bag of preserved lemon, choosing to procure all their ingredients locally. Charles Phan of San Francisco’s Slated Door, on the other hand, featured Alaskan halibut in his fish vermicelli dish. But there was plenty of Shinsato Farm pork, Big Island abalone, sea asparagus and other island-produced bounty to be found throughout the event.

I generally stay away from grazing events—I’d rather try the chefs’ “real” food in their restaurants. Having to devise a dish that translates to 1,000 portions prepped the day before doesn’t make for ideal food conditions. Still, the international scope of the night had me eager to sample the “street food.”

I thought for sure that Seoul star Edward Kwon of Lab XXIV and Singapore’s Justin Quek of Sky on 57 would dazzle, but, in my humble opinion, the night’s instant winners were Kajioka and Lahlou’s meaty Kauai prawns. I’ve never had a new sensation eating a festival dish, but they did it. They slow poached the prawns with zhug, a fiery Arabic sauce. So the prawn looked like a plain old prawn, but it released a low-level burn that was a pleasant surprise, and contrasted beautifully with a dollop of soothing corn pudding, bonito emulsion (aka dashi), globes of impeccable ikura (salmon roe) and sprigs of ogo. Also top notch was Hiroshi Fukui’s poached Kona kampachi in a mushroom-hijiki-chili-pepper-water broth. And everyone was buzzing about Jackie Lau’s shave ice—the bowl of powdery shave ice, coconut custard and mochi flavored with lemongrass and lilikoi was a tasty way to cool off on a sultry night.