Reviews From Hawaii - Kauai, Poipu & Oahu, North Shore and Honolulu [Long]
OK, how best to post the notes on the Kauai and Oahu (North Shore & Honolulu), so that they do the most good? After a few days of contemplation, while on various airlines heading back to AZ and the Mainland, then to London and back, I’ve decided to post under one heading, but then do a separate “Reply” under that main article. I hope that the administrators do not take offense to this method. I decided that, rather than one very, very long article, reflecting restaurants on two islands, it would be easier on the reader, if they could just view the reviews, that interest them, or might fit into their itinerary.
I’ve reflected on my dining experiences, and also on previous articles/reviews of some of these restaurants. One thing that stuck out in my mind was that I was finding vastly divergent reviews of the same dining spots. Well, I thought, maybe it was just a matter of the reviewers’ tastes. Or, perhaps, it was predicated on the night that the reviewer dined at a specific location. Hm-m, maybe something else was afoot... After 16 days of dining around Kauai (Poipu Area), the North Shore of Oahu and Honolulu, I think that it was this “something else.” I’d call this whole set of reviews “The Tale of Two Entrees.”
My wife and I have similar tastes and grade a meal on like criteria. This trip was very interesting, as it was first an anniversary celebration, the significance of the meals was stated at the time of the reservations and almost every meal was in a “high-end” restaurant with reservations made up to six months in advance. There are no real “family-dining” establishments covered and certainly no “cheap eats.” In many of the restaurants, I had requested a floral arrangement to be placed on the table in the earlier dinners on each island, or side-of-island, and a rose for almost all other occasions. Each restaurant knew, in advance, that this was in celebration. Many probably thought that the actual night that we dined there was THE night, but the trip was actually seven months after the anniversary, but was in celebration of it - as was the entire trip. What was odd was that my wife always ended up with the lesser of almost every entree - almost EVERY dinner! As we most often order separate courses, and then share, this was not a real problem, but it was uncanny that she always seemed to get the lesser of the dishes. I think that this might attribute, in part, to the variations in previous reviews. If one were to have ordered exactly as my wife did, and the course delivered was as her’s were, I’d expect to see some lower scores. In my case, however, if one followed my choices and got the same courses that I did, the reviews would have been glowing. Odd, in all respects. Some of these restaurants were “resort” dining destinations, but many were “free-standing,” chef-driven establishments. With only one exception, nothing was bad , just uneven.
In all, the dining was very good, to great. I would recommend almost any of these establishments with but a few caveats. The only regret that I have is that there were too many restaurants and too little time. With one exception, I’d go back to all of these. Some are a definite must-return-to. A few new comers (to me) are now on my Must-Dine list, and an old favorite is on shaky ground.
I also need to note that our meals always include wine (breakfast being an exception, and also not reviewed here). Wine, wine glassware and wine service are all part of what makes a dining experience “special” to us. All reviews include comments on this aspect of our dining. Also, for us, the total dining experience is figured into the reviews. I know that ambiance cannot replace good food, and that good food cannot excuse bad service, but I try to weigh every aspect of the experience, when doing the critiques. Without attempting to devise a Robert Parker, Jr, 100 Point scale, I’ll state that the reviews are roughly:
50 pts Food - ingredients, preparation/cooking, innovation, presentation, plating and any special aspect.
25 pts Wine - selection, wine-service, glassware, price/value and special consideration for wines by-the-glass and half-bottle selections.
15 pts Service - all aspects from the telephone/Internet reservations, the host/hostess, and how the meal is handled, including the replacement of used utensils and bussing of dishes.
10 pts Ambiance - everything from decorations, noise-level and furniture to spacing of the tables.
All prices are in US $ and reflect the cost of the meal, the cost of the wine, some of which was rather expensive and the tip, which usually ran between 15% and 20% with a few exceptions up to about 22%. In almost all cases the tip was based on the total cost of the meal, including wine.
 In the case of the bad course, a replacement was quickly placed on the table, the offending preparation was removed from the service area, and, though not requested, the cost of this course was deducted from the bill.
Note: It seems that some of my accents and diacriticals are not translating from the wordprocessor to the Web site with Ctrl-c/Ctrl-v, so please excuse this fault. Also, I have decided to not use the Hawaiian “`”, except where the chef included it in the menu. Last comment, before we go review some restaurants - Spell Checkers are only as good as their databases. When it comes to Hawaiian names, etc. almost every other word gets flagged, so it makes doing an actual Spell Check extremely time consuming. For the ingredients and preparations, I copied what the chef, server, host/hostess gave me. What you see is how they spelled that item.
Shells, at Sheraton Kauai Resort, http://tinyurl.com/fwde5 is an interesting restaurant.* It offers ala carte and a buffet, which is not totally uncommon with resort dining in Hawaii (see Palm Terrace, The Turtle Bay Resort, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii). What IS interesting is that it is an indoor/outdoor restaurant with a tiny area set aside for two other restaurants of differing cuisines, Italian and Japanese. Also, one can order from the menus of these two variations while dining at Shells Restaurant. This almost makes it four restaurants in one. Since we were traveling to Kauai from San Francisco this day, we wanted something a bit more simple and close. I chose Shells almost by default. I was unable to find any reviews of Shells, either here, or on any other dining fora, but booked anyway, not expecting much. Besides, the heavy-hitters were soon to come.
First, the restaurant is open-air with dining under the roof, plus al fresco on the patio overlooking the Sheraton/Kiahuna Beach, and dining in either Naniwa Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, or Amore Ristorante Italiano, both in opposing corners of Shells. The area is quite lovely, especially when dining on the patio. Not being buffet folk, we opted for the ala carte menu, and it was pointed out that we could also order from the menus of the other two restaurants, where the preparation would reflect the theme of either. It seemed that the course could be done with either a Japanese, or an Italian influence. We chose the straight Shells’ version of everything. The sunset (actually, the sun sets to the other side of the building, but clouds in our field of view illuminated very nicely) setting was excellent, as was the overall service. Our waiter was attentive, without being overbearing. Considering the myriad of possibilities for menu selections, he did a very good job of explaining our choices and the preparations. The courses arrived together and everything was cleared promptly with silverware being replaced, as used.
My starter was the Pan-Fried Calamari with a Japanese inspired dipping sauce, and my wife choose Caesar Salad. The Calamari was adequate, not too chewy, but only about average, while the Caesar was rated as good.
For our entrees, I chose the Seared Opakapaka (pink snapper) with Gingered Miso Buerre Blanc and Fried Nori, my wife chose the Pan-Roasted Ono (wahoo) and Pacific Shrimp in a Citrus-Scented Butter Sauce, Seasonal Vegetables and Star Anise Rice. The Opakapaka was slightly over-cooked, but still very good. The Buerre Blanc needed a bit more soul to it, but still very good. Unfortunately, my wife’s Ono was overdone, and the Shrimp were not the freshest. While they might well have come from the Pacific, it was not an area of that ocean near Hawaii.
The wine was an ‘03 Chalk Hill Sonoma Chardonnay** and an ‘02 Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir.
The glassware was just OK, and our waiter had to search a bit for “the best in the house.” The wine service was very good, despite the glassware issue.
Total charge was $237.17.
* It is also the location for the included full-breakfast buffet at the resort - not reviewed.
** You will see this wine (or this vineyard) again, as it was one of the better choices of domestic Chardonnay on some of the lists.
The Beach House, 5022 Lawai Rd, Koloa, Kauai, http://www.the-beach-house.com/. This was one of the restaurants where the reviews seemed to be across the board. Some loved it, and some were greatly disappointed. I puzzled over this paradox, but booked it anyway. When we were last on Kauai, Iniki had just devastated the island, and there was not much that had been able to reopen in the Poipu Area. One of my favorite restaurants, A Pacific Café, in Kapaa is now closed. Chef Jean-Marie Josselin had opened The Beach House, but had sold it to partners, before opening A Pacific Café. I had heard that there had been some ups and downs, but that now problems were well ironed out, there was a new chef, Todd Barrett, was at the helm and that it a “must try,” on this side of the island.
We opted for a very early seating to be in place for sunset. I’m very glad that we did, as the sunset was spectacular and we were seated in a tiny area of the patio, with only one other table - almost private, considering that there was a full restaurant, just a few feet away, and a public beach beyond a small separating wall. The ambiance and the service were absolutely great.
For starters, I had the Macadamia Nut Encrusted Crab Cake with Papaya/Black Bean Salsa and Ginger Beurre Blanc and my wife the Fried Calamari with Ginger Beurre Blanc, which were extremely tender and flavorful - probably the fourth best we have had. We followed this up with the Molokai Watermelon Salad of Omao Greens, Caramelized Macadamia Nuts, Gorgonzola and Raspberry Vinaigrette, which we split - delicious! For our entrees, I chose the Lemongrass and Kaffir Lime-Crusted Scallops with Saffron Rice, Chili Aioli and Baby Bok Choy and my wife, the Yamase’s Grill, which was A’u (black marlin) that night, on Warm Tomato Couscous Salad, Orange Sherry Vinaigrette, Lilikoi Prawn Salsa with Basil Pesto Drizzle. My Scallops were some of the best that I have had, very large, extremely fresh and flavorful. The Lemongrass and Kaffir Lime were an excellent accompaniment to the tender Scallops. The A’u was a bit of a disappointment as it too was over cooked. Maybe this is a trend to satisfy the tourists, but it seemed all too common. It was not dried out, just over done. It tasted more like Swordfish, than Marlin, which I normally find a bit lighter in flavor, with a softer texture. The accompaniments were OK, but didn’t live up to our expectations, based on the copy in the menu. I must comment on their breads. All were excellent and one, garnished with red-dirt sea salt (alaea) was superlative. My wife picked up several iterations of alaea, and then received a bag from Alan Wong in Honolulu. Right now, we’re pretty well setup with red sea salt.
We started with bottle of the ‘00 Borgeot Chassagne-Montrachet Clos St Jean and sent our server on a journey to find larger glasses. While the glassware was very nice, the “white wine” glasses were a bit small. We settled on a pair of their Bordeaux stems. I did not check the logo on the glasses, but would guess that they were either Riedel, or similar. Had I known that they had Burgundy “balloons,” I would have chosen those instead. Riedel released a model in their Vinum, called “Montrachet,” which looks very similar to their Burgundy balloon, but with the top 1/2" cut off. These work wonderfully for bigger whites. Our server “decanted/caraffed” the Montrachet and got some very strange looks from the wine-steward regarding the glasses and the decanting of a white wine, but we just smiled and explained that we made her do it! Our second wine was an ‘03 Domaine Serene Evanstadt Pinot Noir. This was when I discovered that they had balloon glasses for Burgs/similar. Oh well, live and learn. I’m sure that the wine-steward would have puzzled over that choice for the Montrachet, as well. We would possibly have done better to do a Chablis for the Scallops, but the PN went well with the A’u.
We finished with a couple of decaf coffees and were surprised by a chocolate tort to celebrate our anniversary. Total was $288.63.
Donderos, Grand Hyatt Kauai, 1571 Poipu Rd, Koloa, Kauai, http://kauai.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/e..., is at the higher-end of the many restaurants at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. They specialize in Northern Italian fare, though are not limited there. I do not normally think of Italian dishes, when in Hawaii, but had read quite a few reviews on this location, so it was quickly included, as was Tidepools, also on the Hyatt property. I had really liked the wine list, which was available online at: http://www.thehyatteditor.com/images/.... (I’d urge more restauranteurs to put up both the menu and the wine list on their Web sites. I always enjoy researching what I am likely to encounter and getting a feel for how the staff thinks of wine with regards to food parings.)
The setting is lovely, with both interior dining and an al fresco patio, situated above Tidepools and the oceanfront property at the Hyatt. While sunset was a notch below that from The Beach House, it was wonderful, none the less. We had an intimate table on the patio, right at the railing and the service was impeccable. Our server was the wife of the wine-steward at the Beach House, and we shared our experiences from the night before. At least we were able to give her details to take home on our choices at the Beach House.
I had the Calamari Fritti Fra Divalo (I had to try every version of calamari on the island, or so it seemed), served in a Spiced Marinara Sauce. Very good with just the right amount of heat from the spices. It was not as good as the Calamari from the Beach House, but not too far behind. My wife had the Insalata Di Gamberi Con Erba D’Aqua, a Shrimp and Watercress salad with Orange and Grapefruit segments and a Citrus Vinaigrette. Again, the Shrimp were just OK, not great. For our main courses, I their Filetto Di Manzo Alla Griglia Con Lasagna Di Melenzane, a grilled beef tenderloin with an Eggplant-Goat Cheese Lasagna and Sun Dried Cherry Sauce, at the server’s strong suggestion. My wife chose the Ossobuco Alla Milanese, oven-baked veal shank with Carrot, Celery, Onions, Saffron Risotto and Cremolata. This is were the surprises came in. First, I don’t normally think of beef in Hawaii, even though I’ve had some very good Big Island tenderloin in the past. Also, Ossobuco is a “standard” in most higher-end Italian restaurants, so this was a no-brainer, especially as my wife loves the slow-cooked veal shank. Well, I admit to being a carnivore and also to have had the gluttonous pleasure of having had Kobe beef (not the “Kobe-style,” but the real thing), but I was in no way prepared for my tenderloin. It was absolutely the best beef that I have ever had - period! It was perfectly cooked, and was truly a “melt-in-your-mouth” experience. What flavors!! This experience launched me on an Hawaiian beef binge. The Lasagna was very good too. Now, for the disappointment of the evening, and maybe the entire trip, the Ossobuco. What can I say? It was tough and fatty. I’d guess that it was not slow-cooked, and maybe not long enough - unlike some of the seafood that we encountered. I know that this dish takes some time, but we were in an Italian restaurant, after all. Luckily, my tenderloin was large enough for both of us, as the veal was only edible for about half of what was on the plate - not counting the bone. Also, there was no marrow spoon and, had there been, it probably would not have been useful with this veal shank. Too bad, as all else was excellent.
We started the meal with a bottle of ‘05 Villa Maria, Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This is not my favorite producer from that region, but they didn’t have Cloudy Bay, or Nautilus on the list. The glassware was a step down from that of the Beach House, and this surprised me. I expressed my amazement to our server, especially as her husband was wine-steward at the Beach House. The glassware wasn’t bad, just too thick (dishwasher safe!) and with rather small bowls - both the white and red glasses. When a couple is spending $200+ on wine, they should expect very nice, appropriately sized crystal. Next, we had the ‘98 Tommasi Amarone Classico, which was a perfect accompaniment to the tenderloin and should have been with the Ossobuco, had it been a better dish.
All in all, a strange meal - the best tenderloin that I have ever experienced and the worst Ossobuco, that my wife has ever had. We should probably have sent the veal back for another, though I’m not sure that it would have been better. My guess is that either the choice of veal shank was poor, or that the preparation was just lacking. The service was excellent as was the setting. I would travel to Dondero’s for that tenderloin again, and just not let my wife order the veal.
Total price for the evening’s dining, $362.08.
Plantation Gardens, 2253 Poipu Road, Koloa, Kauai, http://pgrestaurant.com/. Again, I had found mixed reviews on this establishment, but wanted to try it for myself. It is located directly across the street from the Sheraton Kauai Resort, just across a lovely garden at the Kiahuna Plantation Resort. The setting is lovely, with both inside and al fresco dining on the veranda. We chose al fresco and watched twilight engulf the Moir Gardens. This could not have been a more spectacular location, except if it had an ocean view, beyond the garden’s edge. Though our server seemed disinterested, the overall service was good.
I started with the Roasted Duck Spring Rolls with Oyster Mushrooms, Napa Cabbage and Sweet Soy Sauce, and my wife chose the Marinated Pork Pot Stickers with Shiitake Mushrooms, Cilantro and Ginger-Sweet Chili Sauce. Both were excellent.
For our main courses, I chose the Kiawe Grilled Ahi (yellowfin tuna) with Steamed White Rice, Sauteed Local Baby Spinach, Tropical Fruit & Avocado Salsa with Kaffir Lime Cream Sauce, and the wife went with the Kiawe Grilled Tiger Prawns with Coconut Infused Thai Black Sticky Rice, Baby Bok Choy, Mango Salsa and Thai Red Bird Chili-Garlic Beurre Blanc. The Ahi was wonderful, fresh and the Kiawe grilling was perfect. I was glad that the spinach was “local,” as this was during the “big spinach scare.” Too bad that the Tiger Prawns were not as fresh as they could have been, and were slightly overdone. The Marinated Pork Pot Stickers were definitely better. About now, I should note that my wife is from New Orleans and grew up with fresh seafood, prepared to perfection. One of the great joys that we have had has been the seafood in Hawaii, over the years, especially as we have lived inland for the last thirty years. Both the freshness and the preparation of much of the seafood on Kauai was just not up to what we had come to expect. It wasn’t bad, just not 100%. Also, with very fresh seafood, one should approach the heat with a delicate hand and good timing - it makes all of the difference in the world. It’s probably picking nits, but is worth mentioning.
Since we had consumed a bottle of ‘97 Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet (in glasses borrowed from Shells) on the lanai of our room, earlier in the afternoon, we went light on the wine with dinner, settling on a 1⁄2 btl. of ‘04 J. Lohr Arroyo Seco, Monterey Chardonnay and a bottle of the ‘01 David Bruce Paso Robles Petite Syrah. I had looked at the wine list on-line, so I knew not to expect too much. I also got about the glassware, that I had anticipated - about the same as we borrowed from Shells. The fruit-forward aspect of the J. Lohr made for a simple, but enjoyable starter and did well with my wife’s Tiger Prawns, though they probably could have benefitted from a bracingly acidic SB. The spiciness of the Petite Syrah was excellent with both our first, and main courses. Its smoky/earthy notes complimented the mushrooms in both first courses and worked nicely with the Ahi, and its Kiawe grilling.
The meal was good, the service adequate, and the setting romantic and exotic. Yes, the wine list could stand some work, as could the glassware, but it was a very nice dinner for $169.46.
Tidepools, Grand Hyatt Kauai, 1571 Poipu Rd, Koloa, Kauai, http://kauai.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/e..., is the other higher-end restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, like Dondero’s, which overlooks it. The restaurant is constructed to resemble a Tahitian grass hut, and overlooks a lovely lagoon. The setting is spectacular, though there isn’t an ocean, or sunset view. We were seated at the railing, overlooking the Koi-filled lagoon. Obvious jokes about the “catch-of-the-day,” were in abundance. Service was very good - just a notch below Dondero’s. they shared the same wine glassware though. Too bad.
We started with the Tidepools’ Pupu Platter for two, consisting of Lobster and Mango Rice Cake, Sake and Peppered Beef Carpaccio, Togarashi Seared Ahi and Watermelon Salad. All were extremely good, with the Watermelon Salad being just a shade behind that of the Beach House. For a main course, I chose the Sauteed Opakapaka (pink snapper) with Young Spinach, Roasted Potato and Kabocha Pumpkin and Roasted Tomato Broth. My wife ordered the Grilled A`uku (swordfish) Hawaiian Style, marinated in Hawaiian Salt and Fresh Herbs. the A`uku was great, especially the salt rub. It was far better than her A`u at the Beach House. My wife stated that this was her best main course to date, though not the best A`uku that she’s had. Still, things were definitely looking up.
For our wine courses, we got the ‘99 Chalk Hill Sonoma Chardonnay and the ‘03 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. The Chard was a good sipper and went well with the Lobster and Mango Rice Cake and my wife’s A`uhu. The PN was a bit light for the Carpaccio, but paired nicely with the Opakapaka and the A`uhu. Too bad that more attention had not been paid to the glassware. After dinner, we had two decaf coffees and a Taylor-Fladgate 10 Year Tawny Port. Again, a chocolate torte was offered to celebrate our anniversary.
The tab came to $351.86. I would definitely dine there again, though maybe I need to consider traveling with my own stemware. The setting was wonderful, with good food and attentive service. The tables were a bit close, but not that bad.
re: Bill Hunt
My fiance and I are in Kauai right now and really enjoyed reading your reviews. (even though it's 2 years later!) So far we have eaten at Hukilau Lanai (located where we are staying so it's convenient. Food is decent. We both think the calamari is fantastic), Kintaro's (fresh fish but kinda sloppy cut rolls with not much flavor), Smith's Family Luau, High Tea at the Princeville (which is in it's last days), The Beach House (food OK, service good), Olympic Cafe for breakfast (their kolua pork is delicious!) and the best meal so far, Roy's. We both ordered Roy's Classic Trio. The fish was cooked to perfection. The butterfish was like butter in your mouth! The layout was interesting for a restuarant. Felt like we were sitting in a converted gallery or shop. Anyway thanks for taking the time to write these. As you can see people are still enjoying them!