What exactly is Hawaiian regional cuisine? That is the great question when dining in the restaurants of the “fathers” of this cuisine, be it Roy Yamaguchi at his two dozen nationwide restaurants, or like our President at Alan Wong’s Honolulu stalwart, or Jean-Marie Josselin’s riveting tapas on Kauai, and since 1988 at Peter Merriman’s flagship in Waimea on the Big Island. Prior to this past week, I had sampled many of the dishes from Yamaguchi, Wong, and Josselin, both in the 90’s during the peak of the fusion revolution when their creations were copied coast to coast and you could find blackened ahi tuna in wasabi soy even in Helena, Montana. Recent visits to all three have shown not only no wear and tear over the past decade, but that they have in many cases cut down on expansion to sharpen their focus (Yamaguchi), avoided expansion despite being the choice du jour of the President and the Foodie elite (Wong), and gone through a nasty divorce, expanded, then lost all restaurants, and re-invented his restaurant style while staying true to his style of cooking (Josselin).
Then there is Merriman, now trying to follow Roy’s blueprint and put a foothold on each island. The emerging empire began on the Big Island, then shifted to Maui, and now has landed in the impressively gourmet shops at Kukui’ula, in Poipu, on the south shore of Kauai, steps away from Josselin’s new restaurant, and only a half mile from Yamaguchi’s Kauai outpost.
Unfortunately, it’s more like the Pirates vs the Yankees for Merriman against the others if recent dinners are any example of what has been brought to Kauai. Let’s use ahi preparations as an example to compare each of the four fathers of Hawaiian regional cuisine, since all four consider their ahi creations as “signature.” Oh, how the word “signature” can be an excellent business choice much like everyone loves to see “homemade” or “Mom’s” or “famous.” Menu politics are fully at work at Merriman’s with his “signature wok char ahi.”Josselin beautifully fries his ahi sashimi in tempura, then serves it over an invigorating ginger beurre blanc. Yamaguchi’s blackened ahi comes ruby red atop a spicy mustard soy butter sauce. Wong’s nori wrapped tempura ahi with papaya ginger relish and soy mustard sauce should be the state dish of Hawaii.
And this signature wok char ahi at Merriman’s? It is nothing more than cold, limp, barely maroon colored sashimi as if it were served at a supermarket, atop a bed of cabbage slaw that seems more appropriate at a dive sports bar, and a wasabi soy dipping sauce that will move you like a five hour drive thru Iowa. For $38? Unacceptable. To call this a signature dish is both an embarrassment for Merriman to consider this his premier dish and highway robbery for diners expecting something remotely like at Roy’s or Alan Wong’s. Even worse, you can order a half portion of that ahi, at 3.5 ounces compared to 7 ounces I was told, for $32. $32 for an appetizer size of this ahi is plain wrong. It’s a crime really.
In fact, I swear Merriman’s must be run by the mob or just have somebody in charge of the pricing to quality to size ratio who is out get the diners or has no idea what he is doing. The same half portion concept applies to all fish dishes. Yes, some people do want smaller portions. No people don’t want to just donate money to Merriman’s as if it were a charity. The duo option where you choose two fish dishes for your entrée is an even worse deal at $46. Diners may as well do as we did and just share the large plates. I’m not usually one to snipe about prices, but in this case Merriman’s business practices are simply unfair and hurting their own business if the half empty dining room on a Friday night is any indication and how every local points you towards Roy’s or Josselin’s for special occasion dinners.
That being said, a good meal is still very possible at Merriman’s. Skip the ahi and go for the crispy day boat mahimahi, perfectly glazed with a soy citrus marinade conjuring thoughts of Nobu’s miso black cod, and a sesame grilled shitake relish. Merriman seems to have a fascinating talent of crusting the fish magnificently, whether it’s sesame seeds on opah over a spicy lilikoi sauce lacking the spice but saved by a papaya tomato relish, or a terrific macadamia nut crusted monchong, flaky at the touch of a fork, over a too greasy sake mushroom reduction. Other fish dishes are far less riveting– herb grilled ono with lemon caper sauce or Kauai Shrimp Scampi? I’ll take the monchong.
This being Kauai, fish should be the route to take, but meat lovers can go for the $48 16 oz. Kansas City cut rime New York teak with pinot noir butter. The lamb chops come from Colorado, but at least the swiss chard with it is from Kauai, and the creamed sweet corn from the Big Island if that matters to you. The history of the ingredients is so important on the menu that the seafood listing comes with where they were fished. It might be interesting for a moment, but ultimately is annoying.
The most impressive dish may actually be of all things, crab cakes, packed with crab like they do in Baltimore, perfectly teamed with cilantro and a papaya mustard. I could go for the coconut green curry steamed Manila clams too, but too many of the clams had already left their shells before arrival at the table. Like the signature ahi, the ahi poke with kukui nut and ogo tastes like nothing in the way that plain tofu does. I appreciated the tomatoes from Kauai in a salad with Moloa’a beets and Kunana Dairy goat cheese also from Kauai, and fresh papaya, but the pieces did not come together, with the macadamia nut vinaigrette too acidic.
That path continues to desserts. Malasadas, Portuguese doughnut holes, come stuffed with coconut and white chocolate, but the two fillings cancel each other out so it tastes like a plain crême anglaise. I’m torn on the crunchy Hawaiian molten chocolate purse. The chocolate filling is pure, rich chocolate, delightful bite after bite. There is too much phyllo dough wrapping the purses though, shifting the dish’s focus to being phyllo dough with some chocolate, rather than vice versa.
Then there is the service. It was helpful at first with good advice for ordering dishes and the pacing of the meal was fine. However, after every course the plates were removed long before all diners were finished. The sommelier never came until halfway through the meal, long after we were told he would come to help choose wines. The vibe of the restaurant seems a bit more pompous than it should be. In theory the room is elegant, yet really it’s another faux plantation style room. In theory, there’s an ocean view, if you look toward the horizon over empty lots and a golf courses.
In theory, that ahi with wasabi soy dipping sauce is a signature. It shouldn’t be, but sadly, it perfectly represents the dining experience at Merriman’s.