It has been almost two decades since a group of forward-thinking chefs banded together to lift Hawaiian cuisine to a higher plane. Before them, local food could be wonderfully soulful but seldom elegant, and few chefs had the nerve to serve it to tourists. Menus either looked like those you might find in an old-fashioned steak house, or they indulged in faux-Hawaiian, fake Polynesian interpretations that Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber did better.
But just as food sensibilities were awakening on the mainland, seeking out great ingredients and producing food of refinement, the same thing started to happen in Hawaii in the 1990s. Among the pioneers were Peter Merriman, Sam Choy, Mark Ellman and Bev Gannon. Roy Yamaguchi arrived from California and has since built a nationwide restaurant empire on his version of Hawaiian cuisine.
Twelve of them, include those five, founded a movement they called Hawaiian Regional Cuisine (HRC). They didn't try to copy each other. Instead they applied their techniques and understanding of other cuisines to the abundant fresh fish and other products of the islands, and they used ideas from ethnic Hawaii. They incorporated Hawaii's longstanding fusion of Asian, Polynesian and American cultures into their food. If some of them went too far up the creativity staircase, so did their contemporaries on the mainland.
Today that ebullience has settled down in a practiced mastery. Perhaps the most important result of HRC (as they trademarked themselves) is the food suppliers that have developed, especially on the Big Island but also on Maui and Oahu. The farm-to-table movement that has improved dining on the mainland has reached a high level in Hawaii, and the quality of the food shows it.
Shopping at the weekly farmer's market in Waimea was a revelation. The variety and quality of the ingredients I could buy to cook in our rental cottage there were leagues ahead of what I have seen in the past.
Not only that, but the example that original group of chefs set has spread to other venues. Major hotels and restaurants in Hawaii now are more likely to follow the example of the HRC crowd than not, and they have access to fresh, high-quality fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish.
One example is Jacob Anaya, the new chef (since July 2009) at Pahu I'a, the top restaurant at Four Seasons Hualalai on the Big Island. Anaya is a newcomer to Hawaii, having worked in San Francisco at Silks at the Mandarin Oriental and at the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. He brought with him a California chef's reverence for ingredients, and his menu is peppered with references to local stuff. Some of the best farms in Hawaii are 20 minutes away around Waimea.
Some of Anaya's most innovative dishes use ingredients from the National Energy Laboratory facility just on the other side of Kona Airport, where independent entrepreneurs grow fish, seaweed and other foods using cold water pumped from 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Ogo (a red seaweed) flavors butter for tapioca crusted shrimp grown in tanks on the Four Seasons' property. Baby abalone rests on a smoked mango puree. Moi, a remarkably delicate fish, is steamed with tea and gets a sesame sauce. "Kona cod," actually an Alaskan black cod raised in the cold water, hums in its miso-sake glaze.
The restaurant, which sits a few feet from the lava-strewn beach, has regained its place among the best in Hawaii. It had faded into relative mediocrity over the past several years under a succession of chefs. Let's hope Anaya stays in Hawaii for a while.
Most of those original 12 HRC chefs are still at it, and rank among the best. What I like about what I tasted on this trip was that no one seems to be forcing dishes into a specifically Hawaiian frame. There are so many good ingredients now that it's not necessary.
At Mala Ocean Tavern in Lahaina, on Maui, Ellman comfortably weaves Hawaiian touches into Mediterranean-inspired dishes when they're appropriate, as in his bruschetta of seared ahi with edamame puree and locally grown tomatoes. But his wonderful lamb pita could come from anywhere, and who cares when it's so good?
Merriman's restaurants, the original in Waimea on the Big Island and a newer one in Kapalua on Maui, celebrate local ingredients. At Waimea we had a witty appetizer, a miniature version of a hearty local breakfast dish called loco moco, only with high-quality organic ingredients. On Kapalua, the beet salad was all about locally raised produce from farms at Kapalua and upcountry at Kula, dressed with a citrus-beet reduction and strewn with basil, arugula and pistachios, all of which tasted vibrant and alive.
When I was doing the story in 1999, I met a young chef named David Paul in Honolulu, where he had just started a place called the Diamondhead Grill. He had just sold David Paul's Lahaina Grill, one of the best restaurants in Maui. The buyers could use his name on the restaurant even though he was no longer there, and he could not open a competing restaurant in Maui. In 2007 the contract ended and last year he returned from the Big Island, where he had been doing private cooking, to open David Paul's Island Grill, a few blocks from the original in Lahaina. I especially loved the fish dishes there, but the surprise hit was his macaroni and cheese, which included smoked gouda and sautéed chard in the mix.
Our last stop before hitting the airport to return was the Haili'imaile General Store, Bev Gannon's original place upcountry near Makawao. It's still going strong. My favorite dish there this time was the rock shrimp tempura, served as if they were spilling out of a Chinese "to-go" box, mixed with some popcorn (a play on the fact these are often called "popcorn shrimp") and accompanied by three dipping sauces. The truffle and black pepper honey was perfect with them.
That dinner certainly helped make the overnight flight home much more tolerable.
Four Seasons Hualalai, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Telephone: (808) 325-8000
Opelo Plaza, Waimea, Hawaii
Telephone: (808) 742-8385
Mala Ocean Tavern
1307 Front St., Lahaina, Maui
Telephone: (808) 667-9394
David Paul's Island Grill
900 Front St., Lahaina, Maui
Telephone: (808) 662-3000
1 Bay Dr., Kapalua, Maui
Telephone: (808) 669-6400
Hali'imaile General Store
900 Haliimaile Road, Makawao, Maui
Telephone: (808) 572-2666
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