Bites of the Spring: On the Road
Continuing on a look at the memorable bites from the first half of spring, we hit the road outside Northern California.
At a restaurant with a more tenacious PR staff seeking flashy menu descriptions, this would probably be known as “Beets Five Ways” or “Textures of Beets.” Who knew that beets thrive in Kauai’s soil? Josselin is an expert with fish. Now he shows a delicate, modern touch with the rugged beet. Beet and goat cheese fill spherical ravioli dough. There are slices of vibrant purple beets and thin wafers of sweet light beets with rosy centers. The sponge in the center acts as the bread pudding- esque crouton and all is crowned by a beautiful touch of color with the yellow flowers.
Josselin’s one holdover from his old A Pacific Café days in Kapa’a when he ruled Kauai’s restaurant scene. Textbook ruby rare ahi tuna, tender as can be, are flash fried in a sturdy and not overbearing tempura battered. The spicy beurre blanc doesn’t feel dated. It reminds you why we all loved fusion cuisine back in the 90’s.
No dish at Red Salt was flawless, but no dish wasn’t a step above the usual on the island either. There is clearly talent in this emerging kitchen. The signature appetizer is breathtaking to look at with the alternating cubes of pale white walu and the red rare ahi arranged over thin wisps of cucumber. A soy marinade and a few jalapenos seek to add flavor to the neutral fish with mediocre results. The seven spice coated ahi main plate is superior, but falters in the end from far too much salt in the sauce work by way of serrano ham and the coconut cloud.
Well, this is a safe pick. Roy’s is veering far too much towards the safe side these days, with about 1/4 the specials compared to a few years ago. That means it’s the classics. They don’t get better than this wonder of sweet marinated butterfish, even softer than its name evokes. One day they’ll figure out a side other than white rice in a separate bowl. But, it’s the butterfish that matters. The fish is even more penetrated with marinade than Nobu’s Miso Black Cod.
Not a restaurant dish, but my brother’s inside-out cheeseburger variation could be. Just look at those grill marks on the buns. The concept is based off the “Juicy Lucy” cheese stuffed hamburgers at bars around Minneapolis. Collin chooses the ever-reliable Humboldt Fog bleu cheese from Cypress Grove to make this burger truly dazzle, with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions. Surprising that there aren’t more stuffed burgers out there– far better than pizzas with cheese stuffed crusts.
It sounds like a Hawaiian- Haute French- Italian smorgasbord. In a way it is, and I’m fine with that. You won’t leave a drop of the lobster sauce that is fresh instead of cloying because of its wine base replacing the customary cream. There is just the right amount of crunch and spice in the panko crust. The fish is on the mark, being soft, but still able to hold up to the collage of flavors. It’s the smoked mozzarella risotto’s humble, yet extraordinary flavor that won’t leave you, much like the smell of good BBQ on your clothes.
Flatbread Co. is quite the scene. It’s a slice of Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Collective in a hippie town that could be the Hawaiian Berkeley. After the obligatory hour- long wait, you’re in for a treat however you top these abstract cut pies that really are more like hot oven blistered open faced sandwiches on charred thin bread. Don’t push aside the usually forgettable combination of pig and pineapple. These are Maui Gold pineapples and luscious Kiawe smoked pork shoulder. For a moment, I thought I was eating BBQ in Kansas City. Then I noticed the surfers around me, the mango notes on the BBQ sauce and the pineapples, and realized this sure isn’t Missouri.
Mark Ellman is one of the father’s of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s. You know Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, and Peter Merriman…Ellman gets often forgotten unfortunately. That’s probably since he hasn’t expanded far from his Mala Ocean Tavern away from the noise of Downtown Lahaina. Now he has branched out next door to Honu, where in theory the focus is pizza, but the starters and Gado Gado salad are most remarkable. Well, let’s all be honest, the sensational panoramic ocean view is what we’ll remember. However, this bruschetta variation isn’t far behind. I’m shocked I haven’t seen this before. It’s too bad the elements of edamame purée and flax seed toast are found in numerous other dishes, showing a repetitive side. But with that elegant aged balsamic, this dish is perfect for that ocean view.
Chris Bianco’s sandwich shop doesn’t have the waits of the pizzeria, but the sandwiches also won’t win any global competitions either. The wood-fired focaccia isn’t even something that will stop you mid-bite to savor slowly. It’s really a sturdier, herb-tinged pita. However, the mozzarella pulled in house is exemplary, soft without melting. Somehow they find tomatoes in peak form in March and the basil pulls it all together. Caprese doesn’t always have to be the tired same old, same old.
Close your eyes and pick your favorite Bianco pizza. It used to be the smoky “Wiseguy” for me. Now it’s switched to the Rosa’s crunch, sweet, and floral elements. The crust remains flawless even at closing time: puffy, lightly charred, and unequivocally inside the perimeter ends. The center is never droopy. The pistachios sing and the rosemary makes you understand what makes Bianco the legend it is.
Far more than “The Restaurant Across From Pizzeria Bianco,” Nobuo Fukuda took over the historic Teeter House Victorian in Heritage Square a few years ago, and shows his mastery of blending all sorts of spice, marinade, and textural elements for wonderful results. It’s sort of an izakaya, but far more refined and more about the food than the booze. His lamb chops preparation is simple elegance. His style is best shown by raw fish dishes. Shiromi (a creamy, smooth white fish similar to sea bream) bathes here in sesame oil and perked up multiple levels by yuzu kocho (the secret weapon condiment of Japanese chefs, blending yuzu peel and chile paste). The addictive sauce makes you want to sop it up with bread. It’s too bad the focaccia alongside is bland, bordering on stale. I guess for baking you have to go across the street. For extraordinary raw fish dishes, stay here.