My secret garden (island)
My previous eating experiences on Kauai have been limited to reconstituted backpacker food and fruit smoothies from juice shacks. A lot has changed since those wannabe-hippie days. For one, living in Hawaii has opened my palate to more local-style treats like donuts from Komodo Bakery, hot bread from Kanemitsu Bakery on Molokai and malasadas from Tex’s Drive Inn on the Big Island. And then there’s the locavore in me–my hippie sensibilities more deliberately focused in the farm-to-table movement–who seeks eateries embracing locally-grown ingredients. When travelling to neighbor islands, I may be easily distracted by rum-tasting rooms (Koloa Rum made from Kauai sugar is remarkably smooth) and brewing companies/restaurants that offer surprisingly good, affordable food (Grove Café at the Waimea Brewing Company), but my focus on dining out tends to fall into two categories: local institution or locally-grown–with a little room for celebrity chef adoration on the side.
Hamura’s Saimin Stand
Falling in the local institution category, Hamura’s fills all the requirements for dining nostalgia: aunties working in the kitchen, a dining room that looks like it hasn’t changed since the day it opened and a limited menu centered around saimin, that uniquely local bowl of noodles that’s neither Japanese nor Chinese, and yet a little bit of both. All the seating is at communal tables that weave through the small restaurant like a maze. A regular beside us orders tersely: special, large, two beef. Translation: a large bowl of “special” saimin, which includes wontons, kamaboko, roast pork, shreds of luncheon meat (i.e. imitation Spam–such lofty heights Spam has reached that it’s worthy of imitation!) and chopped won bok. “Two beef”: two teri-beef skewers. We copy his order. But sadly, though all the signals have been promising–from the mostly local crowd packing the tiny place to the people ordering boxes of uncooked saimin to bring to relatives as omiyage–our bowl doesn’t live up to the hype. The saimin has been overcooked and is a bit mushy, the roast pork is bland, our luncheon meat lacks the crispness and flavor that comes from a good pan-fry, and our beef sticks might as well have been shoe leather in their toughness. Swirling the noodles in some hot mustard and shoyu saves it all. I wanted to like it, I really did.
Kauai Grill at the St.Regis Princeville
We’re a bit giddy walking into Kauai Grill, a Jean Georges Vongerichten outpost at the St. Regis Princeville. Maybe it’s the dusky colors over Hanalei Bay and the mountains as viewed through the dining room windows. Maybe it’s the comfortable opulence of the room, with the dark wood booths and strands of light hanging in the center, suspended like the legs of a jellyfish. More likely, though, it’s the name of the Executive Chef on the menu: Jean Georges Vongerichten. We’re chef groupies, starstruck by this chef with a 3-Michelin star restaurant and growing restaurant empire, though save for a gala opening dinner, he’s not actually in the Kauai Grill kitchen (probably as a result of said restaurant empire). It’s incongruent, then, when we realize the room is filled with screaming kids–or if they’re quiet, they’re crawling over the aforementioned booths.
Our appetizers included sashimi slices of kampachi with the merest adornments of Meyer lemon, pineapple and wasabi, and a crunchy, salty, rice cracker-crusted tuna with a creamy citrus chili sauce. For an entree, delicate, flaky fillets of moi were dusted with a powder of nuts and seeds and set atop a sweet and sour broth, pungent with truffle oil’s richness and offset with a touch of vinegar. Our other dish, hanger steak frites, may have been ordinary, but was simply good and the accompanying sauces–a black pepper jam and a plummy, citrusy J&G steaksauce–good enough to eat by the spoonfuls. If all the plates so far were light, unweighted by butter and cream, then desserts were almost ethereal. A lilikoi soufflé trapped all the flavor and tartness of passion fruit in a sugar-dusted cloud while a yuzu sorbet enrobed in white chocolate and garnished with shards of pavlova and Thai basil syrup banished all my previous disdain for pavlovas.
Sure, this straddling of Asian and French flavors is not terribly unique to Hawaii, but at Kauai Grill, the execution shows a restrained and balanced hand. Now if only the kids in the restaurant could behave the same way.
Bar Acuda’s ad in Edible Hawaiian Islands, a magazine for the locavore set, caught my eye like the Hanalei Farmers’ Market attracts musicians playing new age-y music. Tapas, or small plates meant to be shared are a dime a dozen on the mainland, but they have yet to catch on here, maybe because we feel personally insulted by small amounts of food on a plate.
The portions are indeed small at Bar Acuda, but we take revenge by ordering more and more of the warm, crusty bread. And if the plates are little, the flavors are all the more concentrated. Humboldt Fog cheese, a soft, aged goat cheese with the hint of a tangy blue, is paired with slices of apple and local honeycomb. Everything we have is good, but favorites (including the above cheese and apple plate) are a house-cured chorizo sausage redolent with spices and chili and grilled flank steak skewers with honey and chipotle.
Though dessert is usually my favorite course, nothing is particularly enticing, especially at $8 and up for some espresso and ice cream, even more expensive than the sweet counterparts at Kauai Grill. I do love the food and conviviality of tapas at Bar Acuda, but in the future, I may consider Bar Acuda a pre-dinner bite–the equivalent of bar snack food–rather than dinner itself, which was probably the original idea behind tapas anyways.