O.k., so this really is the bites of last week, but since there were so many last week in Kauai and not too many this week, we’ll make this a Kauai only edition. If only I could go back for more of these…
Banana Joe’s: Banana- Pineapple Frosty
A fascinating, completely healthy icy treat where a super juicer turns frozen pineapple and banana into the most vibrant tasting soft serve like refresher.
Bar Acuda: House cured Chorizo with Grilled Apples
Too many of the tapas underwhelmed, but not this excellent, spicy charcuterie, full of meaty depth, acceneted perfectly by the sweet, soft apples.
Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill: Kekaha Shrimp-Duck Confit Taco with Papaya Salsa
Josselin’s creativity on perfect display with juicy shrimp, tender meat, and a shell that holds up without being too strong.
Josselin’s: Slow Cooked Butterfish with Stir Fried Vegetables and Soy Mirin Reduction
And here we have Josselin’s deft skill with fresh fish creating a marinated, soft beyond compare butterfish. This is a toss up with the mahi mahi in a nori vinaigrette. A masterful preparation.
Lappert’s: Kauai Pie Flavor in Chocolate Macadamia Nut Waffle Cone
Roll call please. Coconut flakes. Kona Coffee. Chocolate. Macadamia nuts. Vanilla cake crunch. It all equals an unstoppable, very rich ice cream flavor.
Puka Dog: Polish Sausage with Papaya Relish
The sausage is juicier than usual and the papaya relish perfectly compliments it. The perfect lunch in paradise.
Roy’s: Blackened Ahi Tuna Sashimi with Spicy Soy Mustard and Beurre Blanc
The classic ahi preparation, with pristine, thin medallions of ruby red ahi, over the invigorating sauces.
Roy’s: Lemongrass Kaffir Lime Mahi Mahi with Forbidden Rice, Green Papaya Namasu, and Kaffir Lime Tamarind Coconut Curry
So Roy’s has two incredible standards, so I chose a third: this roller coaster of a ride entrée, blasting with kaffir lime flavors, and a curry of Waimea Canyon depth.
Roy’s: Melting Hot Chocolate Soufflé with Raspberry Coulis, and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Still, the liquid center chocolate souffle I measure all others by. Not too crispy on the outside is the key. The moment when the liquid center explodes is as exciting as your first kiss.
Tahiti Nui: Mai Tai
George Clooney approved local bar in Hanalei that makes the essential mai tai: just the right rum, nuttiness, and fruit, the perfect cocktail for paradise.
We’ve covered what I consider the Big 4 of Kauai restaurants: Roy’s, The Beach House, Josselin’s, and Merriman’s. Plantation Gardens is also a reliable choice in Poipu that I usually visit, but didn’t this time, nor did I get to try the new Kauai Grill at the St. Regis in Princeville, with a menu partly created by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Banana Joe’s: An excellent fruit stand just past Kilauea along the highway. Choose some fresh papaya and one of the few places to sell Hanalei Poi Co.’s poi. The real reason to come is for the “frosty,” a treat where frozen fruit (banana and pineapple) are forced through a juicer machine creating a refreshing, soft serve ice cream like treat, but much, much healthier.
Bar Acuda: Jim Moffat, one of the leading chefs of San Francisco in the 90’s, moved to Kauai a few years ago for the surfing, and also created a tapas place, Bar Acuda, in Hanalei. Hanalei is certainly what you would call a sleepy town, except at Bar Acuda (and Tahiti Nui). Moffat brought with him a dash of urban sophistication that makes dining at Bar Acuda a loud, sleek, festive affair, not far from an experience in SoMa or SoHo. This really is a tapas place, where a party of four essentially orders the whole menu. One or two larger plates could help. Prices are steep for what you get: a single, somewhat rubbery scallop over mashed potatoes and a strong truffle reduction was $14. The white on white on white appearance of the dish was none too pleasing either.
Grilled flank steak skewers had a terrific honey-chipotle chili marinade, but the meat was tough. I appreciated the slow braised bbq pork shoulder, which did not need the tasteless potatoes alongside. Whole roasted tomato bruschetta is intriguing, neither better or worse than the traditional style. I love dates more than anyone, but even to me a couple of medjool dates with celery shavings, parmesan, and aged balsamic isn’t worth $10. The one dish I would return to again and again is the superb housemade chorizo. These are fine tapas, yet more is expected from a restaurant that should have grander ambitions than this. Also, since these are tapas, do not order everything at once, or pacing will be quite the adventure.
Brennecke’s: The classic kid-friendly, happy hour friendly beach broiler right on Poipu Beach. Don’t come for a game with the tiny selection of beer or tiny televisions. Don’t you dare order the mai tai, a travesty. Don’t order a salad or it’s $14 for overcooked ahi and a bed of greens. At least service is harming, the view great, the vibe celebratory, and the ahi tacos are decent.
Hamura Saimin Stand
A Guy Fieri approved hole in the wall in Lihu’e, this former laundromat serves some top notch saimin (not too far off from ramen). The fried saimin noodles didn’t move me, but the Saimin Special, filled with tender pork shoulder, fish cake, and hard boiled egg is satisfying on a cold day or any day in Kauai (no such thing as a cold day). It’s popular, cramped, and perfectly old school. An institution in Kauai that the tourists are just now getting to. It’s amazing how three women do all the serving, cooking, cleaning during the lunch rush. A must stop in the county seat of Kauai.
On the west side of the Island, an excellent stop for some serious coffee sampling from Kauai’s dominant coffee grower and roaster. The flavored roasts steal the show, especially the banana nut. Lots and lots of free, good coffee. I could make it a daily habit.
Based in Waimea, the cookies are similar to shortbread, not at all soft or gooey. They beg for milk to soften up. The guava macadamia nut has no guava taste and a sliver of a macadamia nut inside. The chocolate chip macadamia nut seems to always forget both ingredients too. The corn flake crunch cookies can be quite special though.
Koloa Rum Distillery
New to Kauai, this award winning distillery now has a tasting room in the Kilohana Plantation to sample their rums and create a mai tai shot for happy hour in the middle of the day. The dark rum is wonderfully deep and robust, but oh how that white rum is not meant for sipping on its own…
Lappert’s Ice Cream
The late Walter Lappert’s ice cream chain branched out to the mainland, where a few outposts still exist, but those no longer are affiliated with the ones in Hawaii. The ice creams are made in Hanapepe and tend to be awfully rich in butterfat…a good thing. Flavors veer toward the traditional with many featuring macadamia nuts, coconut, and Kona coffee. The Aunty Lilikoi passion fruit is shockingly good. However, Kauai Pie, a mix of everything Hawaii with Kona coffee, chocolate, coconut flakes, macadamia nuts, and vanilla cake brunch, is the masterpiece. I’m not a cone guy, but when I do, it’s always the chocolate macadamia nut waffle cone at Lappert’s.
Living Foods Market
Jim Moffat’s import of Portland or San Francisco foodie locavorism to Kauai in the form of this charming, very expensive market in Kukui’ula. An excellent selection of sandwiches, wood fired pizzas, plus fresh produce, and a tiny, but high quality selection of local meat (even duck confit!) and fish. This is the place for fresh baked raisin focaccia bread or a superb morning coffee, though the espressos veer to the watery side. Living Foods sells many Kauai products too from Aunty Lilikoi passion fruit habanero mustard to Monkeypod coffee jelly.
Trying to challenge Lappert’s, gelato in the Poipu Shopping Village. The strawberry is subpar, but others are fascinating such as kulolo (taro-coconut-brown sugar bread pudding) or avocado. The gelato itself is excellent consistency, pure, with no icy spots.
Right next to Papalani Gelato, the veteran Puka Dog now has lines around the corner thanks to its Travel Channel fame. The hot dogs luckily are better than ever, topped with mango relish or coconut relish or the superb papaya version, especially with some lilikoi mustard too. No need for the too watery lemonade. A Kauai classic.
Taro Ko Chips Factory
Hidden in a run down shack in quiet Hanapepe, this family has been creating some life-changing taro chips and potato chips for decades. It’s hard to find, but well worth seeking out for your beach lunches. The li hing mui covered sweet potato chips may be the most delicious food item on Kauai.
It’s rare to find a restaurant chain with 29 locations across the country worthy of significant praise, but Roy’s is that rare empire to deserve a round of applause for its continued high caliber consistency and creativity. Long after the fusion wave of the 90’s dot com boom era that chef Roy Yamaguchi rode to an international empire from Guam and Tokyo to Denver and Philadelphia, Yamaguchi’s empire has trimmed somewhat, becoming even stronger over a decade later. Today, there are 29 Roy’s across the country, with one in Guam still and one in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills. The original Roy’s founded in 1988 remains, in the outskirts of Honolulu. Gone is the Austin, Texas outpost right at the start of that city’s dining boom and gone is the Denver restaurant in Cherry Creek, where my entire extended family feasted on mahi mahi and ono amidst sub zero temperatures outside. At least it was paradise inside! Gone is the Philadelphia Roy’s where I enjoyed his Hawaiian fusion cuisine in the shadow of the Liberty Bell and no longer can my Dad bring the hibachi grilled salmon with citrus ponzu sauce back to me from the Roy’s in the Seattle Westin. Yes, even smelling it through a rain delay at Sea-Tac, my Dad was a trooper and brought his demanding eight year old or so son the Roy’s salmon on the plane. Nowadays maybe he can bring the porchetta sandwich from Armando’s Salumi next time he goes to Seattle…
After Jean-Marie Josselin left The Beach House a decade ago and Josselin’s A Pacific Café closed shortly thereafter, Roy’s quickly became the premier dining experience on Kauai. With six Roy’s across the Islands, including one on each of the four major islands, a night of Hawaiian fusion dining at Roy’s is as essential an experience to a Hawaiian trip as snorkeling and watching the sun set with a mai tai in hand. I’ve tried numerous Roy’s across the country. The San Francisco one is terrific, but it’s just not the same eating the misoyaki butterfish on Mission Street in the Financial District. The Pasadena branch is excellent, as is the one I visited most recently in Downtown Los Angeles, the perfect pre-Lakers game dining spot.
However, there is nothing like eating at Roy’s in Hawaii. The Kauai Roy’s resides inside the quaint, charming Poipu Shopping Village, a far cry location wise from its ocean side peers in Poipu. The prominent view is of the bustling open kitchen in the central portion of the dining room and of the parking lot from the window enclosed front dining room.
With no ocean view, the food must thrill. And it does.
The Poipu Bar and Grill does not have any of the new sushi creations that Yamaguchi has been placing on mainland Roy’s menus. Still, the appetizer menu is over a dozen listings strong, almost impossible to choose from since each item is more and more tempting. Think back to the Clinton years when restaurant menus had 30 items to choose from, nearly each one had “wasabi” or ginger” as an ingredient, and each dish has at least five parts listed in its description.
The mandatory appetizer order is the famed blackened island ahi sashimi over both a beurre blanc and fiery wasabi soy mustard. Every part of the dish thrives, bordering on too much heat from both the seasoning and the sauce, but not going overboard. Of course the key is the ruby red medallions of ahi that could be served by Jiro. The starter portion uses the higher grade tuna than the main course sized portion, making the choice easy.
The problem is there are too many appetizers to choose from. Some are Roy’s classics like seared white shrimp sticks with house made kim chee, the Hawaii Kai crab cake, and the Szechuan pork ribs. The Canoe for Two is a wise choice for sampling the stand-bys, but the reason Roy’s remains so exciting is how each of its outposts creates various new dishes, unique to that day at that location. There could be sizzling salmon belly sashimi sprinkled with Hawaiian alae salt or blue crab and garlic baked oysters with a tomato ogo relish. Roy’s even hops on the comfort food gone upscale with the Hawaiian gluttony classic loco moco re-invented with a crispy beef oxtail croquette, slow poached egg, and Hon-shimeji mushrooms. Potsticker dishes tend to be too doughy with dry fillings. That was not the case with white shrimp gyoza, cleverly combined with diced lup cheong sausage in an intriguing spicy xo lobster sauce. The only clunker was an uninspired salad of hearts of palm, not moist compressed watermelon, macadamia nuts, and two dots of brie cheese. The pieces didn’t come together into anything, the dish more appropriate at a routine hotel restaurant.
Lobster sauce makes another appearance with the macadamia nut crusted shutome (Hawaiian swordfish), a Roy’s standard that usually features mahi mahi. You can always get the reliable hibachi grilled salmon with citrus ponzu sauce, the dish that made me a young ardent Roy’s supporter. This being Kauai, fish is the name of the game. Some artistry is on display with gremolata crusted ono with pureed Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, and two mango guises: with scallops in a ceviche and in a brown butter mango sauce. I always rave about the misoyaki butterfish in sizzling soy vinaigrette. Butterfish is a stronger tasting fish with flesh as delicate as a ballerina’s step. Nobu’s famed miso black cod has a competitor. The jade pesto steamed Hawaiian snapper in a bread-sopping required sizzling ginger peanut oil is one of the less exciting sounding dishes, yet is just as exciting in reality as it was two decades ago. The pesto is the key here, fresh with pungent arugula and green herbs. The real show-stopper was the special lemongrass kaffir lime mahi mahi over forbidden rice with something similar to a green papaya salsa and a kaffir lime tamarind coconut curry with stunning depth. Like sunset at Polihale Beach, each moment with the mahi stops time.
There is a sous vide rancher’s steak for the meat lovers and molecular gastronomy lovers. I’m sure it’s a winner. In the mainland there’s enough sous vide meat though on neighborhood bistro menus, so go for the fish of Kauai’s sea.
As the case with all Roy’s, there is never a discussion for dessert. Order ahead of the time the melting hot chocolate souffle. The dish is a cliché from the days Roy’s started expanding, but nobody performs the textbook version as well consistently as Roy’s. It’s the standard I’ve always judged others by. With a warm liquid center, crisp but not burned exterior, and some vanilla ice cream to cool your burning tongue, this is dessert as its meant to be. The only glitch is I’ve never understood why the raspberry coulis with the souffle always tastes like cough syrup. It tastes nothing of raspberry. Avoid it and steal all the chocolate from your friends instead.
Service initially was very rocky. There was first a fifteen minute wait after our reservation time despite numerous open tables. Then we were led to the desolate bar patio area across the sidewalk from the restaurant despite our request to be in the restaurant when making a reservation. Ten minutes later we were led to an actual table in the actual restaurant. The waiter was clearly in the weeds, ignoring us for fifteen minute periods between receiving menus, ordering wine, receiving wine, and ordering food. Eventually I had to summon the closest waitress and say we were ready to order, a task finally accomplished over an hour after our reservation time. Luckily, things smoothed over from there.
Another brilliant idea by Yamaguchi: edaname to munch on while perusing the menu. Other restaurants should follow.
Roy’s is the rare restaurant empire as consistent in L.A. as it is in Bonita Springs. There is nothing like eating at Roy’s in Kauai. It sure isn’t like any other restaurant chain.
The mai tai is a fascinating cocktail, created back in 1940 by Victor Bergeron, the “Vic” of Trader Vic’s, at the Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, CA, near Oakland, not exactly a real bastion of tropical tiki culture one might say. His original recipe called for dark Jamaican rum, orgeat (an almond syrup), curaçao (an orange liqueur), and a dash of rock candy syrup.
Wait a second. Aren’t mai tais usually filled with tropical fruit juices such as pineapple and passion fruit mixed with light rum and a dark rum float on top, a sliced pineapple on the rim of the glass, and an umbrella?
Not the actual mai tai as it was meant to be. It was meant to be mainly a rum drink with a touch of citrus. Over the years the mai tai has become less a focus on rum and more the type of refreshing fruit driven drink you dream of having on a tropical island. Mr. Boston‘s varation on the mai tai is quite simple, but very different than Vic’s:
1 oz. Light Rum
1 oz. Gold Rum
1/2 oz. Orange Curaçao
1/2 oz. Orgeat
1/2 oz. Lime Juice
The quality of the rum, the touch of orange, and the slight nuttiness from orgeat are pivotal for a mai tai. Sampling mai tais around Kauai, it’s very easy to tell who puts effort into their creation and who simply thinks that mixing passion fruit, grapefruit, and orange juice, with a dark rum float will taste good. It’s revolting (cough, cough Brennecke’s).
The local watering hole in Hanalei on the North Shore, Tahiti Nui, now known from the George Clooney film The Descendants, makes the hands down best mai tai on the Islands, perhaps that I’ve ever had. The description is vague, nothing more than secret recipe of fruit juices with light and dark rum. That secret recipe is a perfect blend though, with a little sweet, a little nut, and then a little booze from the dark rum float. Served with pineapple in a classic pina colada glass, this is how mai tais should be. George Clooney must have improved.
Equally as good I’d say, but far more dressed up, is the ultimate mai tai at the Honu Beach Bar at Poipu’s Marriott Waiohai. The bar now has grass beneath the tables instead of sand, but this is no dressy establishment despite the changes to this mai tai. Instead of orgeat, there’s amaretto. Instead of curaçao, it’s grand marnier. It’s stronger than any other version not surprisingly, but is a truly balanced, well constructed drink. Of course it’s even better when enjoyed at the Honu, one of the most impressive views on Kauai.
I gave Merriman’s a very hard time earlier this week, but they do know how to craft a terrific mai tai. The fruit juices veer heavy to the pineapple and I detected perhaps a touch of nutmeg amidst the mix. The high quality Koloa rums make this a more elegant mai tai, like the one at Honu. They should be sipped instead of downed as a post beach refresher.
At the other end of the spectrum are the “world famous” mai tais at Brennecke’s, a bar-beach broiler at Poipu Beach with a terrible lack of tvs to be a sports bar and a lacking beer list to match. The mai tais must be world famous for all the wrong reasons. An off kilter mix of juices in all the wrong quantities makes this taste like grapefruit juice past its expiration date. The Koloa rums increase the price, but not the taste.
Of course, the best mai tais on Kauai are the ones my Dad creates. Yes, he used Mr. and Mrs. T Mai Tai Mix and Bacardi Gold rum (when you combine light and dark rums it equals this, right?). The mix is incredibly sweet, like that rock candy syrup would be Trader Vic used back in 1940. Yet it has a nice fruity touch and a hint of nuttiness that is awfully delicious, far superior to the Trader Vic mix. Yes, the ingredients are mainly:
high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, gum acacia, and “Natural and Artificial Flavors,”
but hey, those chemists know how to make a great mai tai! The mix from Kukui Brands sold at the Koloa Rum Distillery tasting room at Kilohana Plantation is impressive too, but lacks enough fruit power.
Oh how the mai tai has evolved since Trader Vic created it. Of course all of these mai tais taste even better when watching the sunset at Poipu Beach.
The Beach House is the most controversial restaurant on the island of Kauai amongst the passionate food community of locals and frequent visitors. Its location a mere ten yards removed from Lawaii Beach with a striking view west toward the sunset each night is truly spectacular, paradise found. It is the quintessential Kauai restaurant for honeymoon dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, celebration for being on Kauai dinners.
The magnificent setting is not controversial, not up for debate. The merits of the restaurant itself, however, can be fiercely heated. Is any of The Beach House food worth the price tag? The debate continues. Having dined at the Beach House all my life, the quality does fluctuate tremendously year to year. In the late 90’s when Jean-Marie Josselin ran the kitchen, The Beach House was the pinnacle of paradise dining with the food to match the view. When the new Maui based restaurant group in charge of the Plantation House in Kapalua took over The Beach House about a decade ago, the experiences went one step down, but still was far above the usual oceanfront, romantic tourist trap.
Slowly over the past few years the menu has stayed the same, but preparations sloppier, the service less polished. Now in 2012, the Beach House has hit the bottom with an experience that makes myself and my guests who have dined at the Beach House for decades, including a couple who have visited since their honeymoon in 1982 (two hurricanes ago, since then The Beach House has crept inches and inches away from the coast for safety reasons), for whom the name The Beach House conjures majestic, awe-inspiring views and meals remembered for a lifetime, have decided this destination may not merit a return meal for some time.
Not all of the blame goes to what is served on the plates. The fresh Island ahi sashimi is fine with far high quality ahi at least than the exact same preparation at nearby Merriman’s. Nothing is special with the dish, the wasabi soy dipping sauce similar to any other on the Island and the fish sitting atop a useless bed of cabbage. Nicely marinated ceviche mixing a mystery Island fish, scallops, and tiger prawns arrives dramatically in an open coconut. Even the unoriginal crab cake is superior to many versions, actually containing more crab than breading. A salad of asparagus and local tomatoes from Kilauea, and goat cheese is fine, but lacking any plating creativity with the goat cheese displayed in a scoop like potato salad at a school cafeteria, and the ingredients overpowered by the too acidic soy sherry vinaigrette.
The Beach House’s main plates focus on, like most restaurants on Kauai, the fresh fish. Instead of crafting the preparation to the fish, The Beach House’s chef Marshall Blanchard has three set fish of the day preparations and simply plugs into those three whatever the fishermen bring in.
We would have ordered the miso marinated shutome (Hawaiian swordfish) over shitake mushrooms in a complex sounding, Southeast Asia inspired, ginger and fish sauce filled broth. However our waiter, using his visits to Vietnam and Thailand as rationale for his advice, says the chef is from Colorado and the broth is weak and nothing exciting like the description says. True or not, it’s brutal that the waiter has to admit a dish’s faults, especially if it’s to dumb down a dish for diners.
Monchong comes crusted in a wasabi crust that tastes of nothing but panko crumbs, sitting in a pool of lemongrass lilikoi beurre blanc with no detectable lilikoi or lemongrass. The same goes for the macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi in a citrus aka miso beurre blanc that tastes like the same beurre blanc. Both fish are perfectly flaky, with some ceremonial asparagus on top, and a pointless, tasteless scoop of rice next to the fish as if this were Red Lobster. Did I mention its $40 for these two fish?
At least the mahi mahi and monchong weren’t grilled to a dry oblivion like the ono in a lemon basil aioli. The accompanying Kamuela tomato stuffed with sauteed spinach, boursin, and parmesan cheese was the type of cold, flavorless side you’re very likely to find untouched at a convention banquet. The fire roasted, over the magnificent Kiawe wood native to Kauai, ahi in both a ginger lime beurre blanc (yet another variant of that beurre blanc…yet they all taste like butter…) and black bean sauce (that you can actually detect) is the most consistent dish on the menu the past few years. The furikake mashed potatoes with the ahi though always lack any taste of the umami rich furikake.
In short, too many indecipherable beurre blanc sauces, too many presentations that look the same, the grilled ono with the stuffed tomato shouldn’t have made it past the first cut, and please, above all else, do not serve a lackluster side of rice pilaf with the fish. These problems make The Beach House seem more like being fed by a catering company at high end New York dining room prices.
Returning back to the service, whether it was because we had a “late” (8 pm?) reservation and everybody wanted to go home by 10 or not, never hit its stride. Orders weren’t taken until at least a half hour after we were seated. Water glasses were unfilled too many times to count. Plates were taken away before everyone at the table was finished and in one case, before a diner was even done with an appetizer. Our main server was helpful, but also seemed to be talking down to us, whether it was advocating for a $12 more expensive malbec than our first choice or about his travels and how the miso marinated shutome was not up to par. It’s not as if his recommended monchong and mahi mahi ended up being any more original.
Matters were made worse when The Beach House ran out of requested desserts wines and even had run out of flourless chocolate tart, which everyone had been greatly anticipating. How do you run out of your signature chocolate dessert? You don’t. The chefs simply didn’t want to make another tart because it takes time. At Roy’s and any other successful restaurant with a souffle to be baked, they ask long before the dessert time, whether or not to fire up the souffles. There’s no excuse. There also is no excuse for the recommended replacement, a dry, pointless carrot cake with a scattering of macadamia nuts. The waiter even pushed into this saying that the chefs want to go home and he would just go cut the slice himself. A destination restaurant doesn’t serve that carrot cake, doesn’t run out of chocolate tarts, and certainly doesn’t say the chefs want to go home. Isn’t fine dining supposed to make the diner feel special?
It’s a shame The Beach House has declined to this level. No longer does it have that majestic connotation. Instead, it spells tourist trap loud and clear. The good news is the restaurant can only go up and the prices can only go down. If you want to watch the sunset at Lawaii Beach, set up in front of The Beach House on the gorgeous lawn between the restaurant and the ocean. It’s the same view, without the comedy of errors going on in the dining room.
It has been a long road back to being the King of Kauai chefs for Jean-Marie Josselin, since the demise a few years ago of his original restaurant in a Kapa’a mini-mall (the one with Safeway directions would always say), the critic’s favorite and universally beloved A Pacific Café. Josselin’s cooking at A Pacific Café was far more than just intriguing fusion for sunburned tourists wanting to taste Hawaiian food without the poi. A Pacific Café was revolutionary. The Hawaiian fusion presented by Josselin was a precursor for the likes we see today where Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco or Zahav in Philadelphia mingle a particular cuisine with influences from worldwide, making a fascinating gastronomic mash up that captivates diners visit after visit. It’s not fusion. It’s a thoughtful, global-minded evolution of a cuisine. A Pacific Café would have been on many of the “best of” lists and the desire of the foodie universe-blogger community that didn’t exist back in 1999. Most upscale restaurants on Kauai at the time were tourist traps along the ocean where the food wouldn’t try to compete with the view. A Pacific Café could’ve been in Studio City or Kansas City, there would be no way to know in that mini mall or in the dining room. The works of art on the plates could’ve held their ground in any major city. Kapa’a isn’t that different from San Francisco after all, they both have prominent Weiland whale murals.
For me, I can safely say Jean-Marie Josselin changed my life. Growing up, I was the opposite of a foodie. I loved frozen taquitos for snacks, egg mcmuffins for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly at lunch. As my family would visit Kauai each spring, my parents would go to A Pacific Café while my brother, my grandmother, and I would order pizza in and watch a movie. My parents would come back describing these masterpiece dishes with magical words in them like “firecracker salmon” and “mahi mahi,” and “ponzu.” Sometime around when I became old enough to go golfing finally, I also became old enough to go to A Pacific Café. A fervent passion for gastronomy ensued and has only increased to this day. Josselin’s mahi mahi with lime ginger sauce was the dish of my gastronomic adolescence, though it was so good our entire family would order it, not sampling much else, since we knew sharing the dish would cause somebody to end in tears. Josselin’s best selling 1992 cookbook A Taste of Hawaii was one of the first cookbooks I ever looked through, in addition to being one of the first cookbooks anybody created combining flavors of the Hawaiian islands with classical techniques (“New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific” says the book).
Josselin started expanding to other islands like his Hawaiian regional cuisine rival Roy Yamaguchi, even branching to Las Vegas with the restaurant 808. For a few years, Josselin created the pinnacle of Hawaiian dining when he took over the Beach House Restaurant, an elegant run of the mill romantic tourist trap with a stunning oceanfront location in Poipu. With the location and Josselin’s cooking, this was the summit of what dining in paradise could be.
Lots of possibilities can drag down a excellent restaurant: the chef becoming complacent, chefs making poor business decisions, over expanding. A chef can’t prepare much though for a nasty divorce. That is what buckled Josselin at the height of his popularity and talent. Gone went the Pacific Cafés and 808. Josselin vanished from the dining scene, breaking our hearts, and all of Hawaii’s.
Then in 2009 came the Shops at Kukui’ula in Poipu. With a 2004-like Red Sox comeback, Josselin bounced back from being throttled by the divorce and emerged with the same exciting cooking in a new format at Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, the master is back, and as good as ever now in 2012.
As the name suggests, Josselin’s follows more of the format you’ll find in Madrid or Barcelona, where have the menu is bite sized tapas to small plates, the other half is larger plates bordering on entrée size. There are no clunkers on the menu. There are some merely good dishes, some very good ones, and some that show a game-changing chef at the top of his game.
In the latter category would actually be two of his large plate preparations. Josselin has always been a master of fish, like with the aforementioned mahi mahi. Here the mahi mahi is sesame crusted, perfectly flaky over Asian noodles, and a stunning pure, but intense nori vinaigrette like you might find in an omakase from a kaiseki master in Kyoto. Possibly even better is the butterfish, as soft as the name suggests from slow cooking, with a soy mirin reduction. This being 2012, pork belly is on the menu surprise, surprise. However, if every pork belly were as luscious and riveting as this one braised for 36 hours, with a glaze of local rosemary orange honey, and julienned apple kimchee that is intriguing as it sounds, pork belly merits its place on every menu.
I couldn’t get enough of the kiawe roasted asparagus with a 61 degree poached egg and applewood bacon, a dish on every menu of every local, neighborhood bistro, but barely any achieve the smoky char from the kiawe wood, or the perfect poached state of the egg with a close, but not quite liquid center. Vegetables continue receiving praises with an avcocado sampler, where the centerpiece comes roasted, in tempura, as a cupcake in the form of mousse, paired with peanut butter. A simple salad is far from that with blistered charred tomatoes, roasted feta, olives, and avocado.
One of two carry-over dishes from A Pacific Café is the firecracker salmon, that slightly resembles a firecracker in appearance from the fish being wrapped in tempura and shaped like a firecracker, but the spice from cucumber kimchee and a sweet-sour sauce doesn’t exactly ignite your palate. The standout tapa is the Kekaha shrimp and duck confit taco topped with a papaya salsa that masterfully weaves Kauai, haute French cuisine, and Mexican street food into one blissful tortilla. Here, Josselin is local, worldly, contemporary, speaking of our time and place. Being the son of a Portuguese father, a German mother, a French trained chef who has made his culinary mark in Hawaii, Josselin comes from an incredible global background, and dish after dish, especially the taco, shows how he successfully applies his upbringing, training, and experiences.
That global background comes through again courtesy of the steamed Kauai shrimp and pork shumai dumplings in a spicy eggplant vinaigrette, again spanning the globe, and beautifully blending surf and turf. It’s a dumpling preparation where the filling actually can be deciphered easily. The other Pacific Café carry-over is the tempura wrapped seared ahi in a wasabi ginger beurre blanc, mixing hot and cold, flash and old school continental, vintage Josselin. The only slight misses came at the very start. Scallop pillows lack a defining taste in a somewhat weak cardamom coconut broth and the excellent short rib steamed buns could hold their own in any dim sum, but is too bready, needing more of a filling. Don’t skip dessert despite all these tapas. There are some textbook profiteroles with an incredible vanilla bean ice cream filling, topped with a chocolate sauce that could be drunk. Or the good chocolate souffle cake that becomes excellent from the excellent roasted banana sauce that steals the show.
The large plantation style room with an open kitchen on one side and large open windows around the rest on the second level of Kukui’ula can get very loud from the hardwood floors and the packed tables. To make matters worse, since this is a tapa-focused restaurant, each table is twice the size as normal ones with a grand lazy susan in the center for sharing. It’s a great idea and very useful, but also makes normal conversation impossible.
With this being a tapa-focused restaurant, pacing for servers and the kitchen becomes a problem as well, with usually too many plates coming at once, and then breaks where nothing is on the table for too long. After the first round we had to request for the pace to be slowed down. The other slightly annoying matter is that menus don’t appear until after the sangria cart swings by, so you don’t know whether you want another cocktail, or a glass of wine, or to go for the sangria. The sangria server needs to take a lesson from the maître d’s of France or New York power dining rooms where they proudly display the champagne and caviar cart like their own children. Here, she was so shy displaying the sangria I didn’t even know she was addressing our table. If you go for the sangria, the traditional red and the lychee are both superb. Do avoid the overly sweet pomegranate version at all costs.
We are fortunate that there are happy endings in this world. It was heart-breaking to see Josselin forced to leave Kauai. Luckily for the Garden Island, the master is back, and better than ever.
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.