Kauai and Waikiki Aug 2012
Here's the fine dining part of my report from our recent trip to Oahu and Kauai.
Azure at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki was somewhat of a disappointment. It was the first fine dining meal of our trip (2 nights in Waikiki and 8 nights on Kauai) so things only got better, fortunately. Our server that night was the highlight of the experience, we just really connected with him and he went out of his way to be friendly, engaging and helpful, but still professional and on point. The only misstep was when we asked for fennel to be left out of the herb butter preparation on the ono, he misunderstood and brought us a dish with only garlic and olive oil for flavorings. He made up for it in other ways with great service, though. The fish concept at Azure is to pick your fish from what they bought at auction that morning and then pick one of two preparations, the Black Magic spice or the lemon/caper/herb butter prep. I suppose this is intended to make the fish the star of the show, and while the fish was high quality, it just didn't feel all that special and having only two preparations, for me, just didn't give enough choices. I want the chef to create the fish and flavor combos, I don't want to have to do it myself. I don't think I'd recommend Azure, but there aren't really all that many choices for beachside/ocean view fine dining in Waikiki. I know that is why most foodies head to Wong's or Mavros. La Mer has a lovely setting but it was just too pricey and a bit too formal for what we were wanting. I know we were asking for a lot.
Things got much better (for us) for fine dining once we hit Kauai where the best fine dining places seem to be all in the South shore Poipu area.
Josselyn's served good food, but their service was spottier, with some of the crew seeming seasoned and well trained with others either too green a or perhaps a bit undertrained. I realize its not a large pool of potential employees to draw from on a small island, but it is the job of the front of the house manager to train the staff and to follow through. The dishes we had were Slow Cooked Butterfish / Stir Fried Vegetables / Soy Mirin Reduction and Plancha Seared Opakapaka / Hearts of Palm Salad / Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette. These portions were huge, probably 8 or 10 oz of fish each. We are definitely lighter eaters than most, but I can't imagine sharing two or three smaller dishes and then having room for these entree sized portions. Even the salads were huge, I think the tapas concept is more in spirit of sharing than in portion size, you get ALOT of food for what you pay. We enjoyed the sauces and the fish, and it was a big improvement from Azure, but still not the best we had on the trip.
Merriman's Poipu was just a bit more casual than Merriman's Kapalua in Maui, in both service and cuisine, and we almost didn't go based on that and some less than stellar reviews we had read, but I'm really glad we did. It was still excellent all around and the views from the upstairs dining room, especially the back veranda, are expansive and panoramic of the Lawai area. We watched the sunset both nights and during one of them we got a brief rain shower and then a nice rainbow. I would definitely recommend Merriman's Poipu, but I suppose I'm a fan of Peter Merriman's cuisine. We had the Macadamia Nut Crusted Monchong – Sake Mushroom Reduction, Sesame Crusted Opah – Papaya Tomato Relish, Lilikoi Sauce, Crispy Day Boat Mahi Mahi – Sesame Grilled Shiitake Relish, Soy Citrus Glaze, Pan Roasted Diver Sea Scallops Creamed Big Island Sweet Corn, Asparagus, Crispy Bacon. Service was very friendly and proficient, but still a bit more casual than in Kapalua or at Red Salt.
The most impressive meal we had this trip was dinner at Red Salt at the Ko'a Kea Hotel in Poipu, Kauai. We had the shrimp three ways appetizer, basically three grilled shrimp deshelled served with three different sauces, a champagne beurre blanc, a passion fruit beurre blanc and a avocado-mango salsa. It sounds basic and perhaps ordinary, but the sauces were extremely refined: strong in flavor, delicately prepared and so tasty I wanted to lick the plate. The same was true for the preparation of our main courses, a vanilla mahi mahi with black rice and avocado ginger salsa and opah with crab potatoes and a sake coconut broth. These were the best fine dining fish dishes we had all trip, just edging out Merriman's Poipu (on two different nights), Josselyns, and far better to my palate than Azure in Waikiki. The service at Red Salt was also top notch, professional and appearing effortless. I was really glad we went. I'd highly recommend Red Salt.
For some reason we didn't get all that lucky with wines at any of these restaurants, but sometimes thats how it goes. Most of the stuff we drank (Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand and Pinot Noirs from Oregon and California) were kinda ordinary and unexciting versions of those varietals.
We also had a really nice lunch at The Beach House in Poipu. We were a bit surprised, because when we went for dinner several years ago, we found the food to be OK, but not that great. Probably our good lunch experience was more due to lowered expectations, but we had the grilled fish of the day, swordfish, in a lemon caper sauce over thick rice noodles (my wife who recently went on a gluten free diet was famished for pasta and this was the best substitute for wheat pasta that she's found) and sauteed juliened vegetables was delicious, and well prepared. I was expecting a dry overcooked slab of swordfish, but this was moist and tender. We also had the seafood chowder in a creamy base with diced potatoes, corn, bacon, onions and celery with hunks of crab. It was another bowl-licker, I had to get every last drop of that soup!
Was it just 2 of you? I went to Josselin's a few weeks back and wasn't as overwhelmed by portion size as you seemed to be...but there were 4 of us. We got a LOT more food than you did and while I felt full, my boyfriend (a big local boy...) and friend's husband (another big filipino man!) could have had more. With there being 4 of us, we could all have one bite of food, hence why we ordered so much more than you. I would still classify this as small plates...but maybe I'm just used to grinding here on Kauai? We tend to eat a lot, I think. Interestingly, I don't think we ordered any of the items you had. Service was a little spotty for us but my boyfriend was cousins with our server so I think he was extra lax with us. Hopefully you had some lychee sangria- my fav!
Yes just two of us and you are right, we are light eaters. Here are photos of their fish dishes. The butterfish dish has two pieces of fish, each of which I'd guess to be 6 oz before cooking, which in some fine dining places would be a portion each, so there was basically two portions of fish on one plate for $28. The salads were dinner size salads, not side salads. I didn't see all their dishes, and some must be smaller appetizer size, but at many tapas places, every dish is just about 6 bites. Didn't have the sangria, probably should have.
We were only on Oahu for two days so very limited on time, but our favorite food experiences on this trip were a weekday breakfast at Orchids at the Halekulani (eggs benedict done perfectly and really good guava juice), Mai Tais and Hawaiian music and hula dancing at House Without a Key (the trio had an actual steel guitar that I've rarely heard live in Hawaii, such a sweet sound), and at the other end of the fancy/service spectrum, two good plate lunches and tasty desserts at Diamond Head Market and Grill. The setting and the service at Halekulani was very nice and relaxing. Orchids lanai is a good place to have a leisurely breakfast and the food was worth the price. As I mentioned in another thread, all Mai Tais I found in Hawaii were Hawaiian versions (with tropical juices) and most were not that great. Even at Merriman's they used Govinda's POG juice instead of freshly squeezed juices. I suppose Govinda's is pretty good since its not pasteurized, but it still didn't make their Mai Tai all that impressive. Not sure what was used at House Without A Key, but it was pretty good and it was strong enough, too. On Kauai, I resorted to making my own cocktails and that worked best for me. At the Living Foods Market in Kukui'ula Shopping Center (which is kinda like a smaller Whole Foods) they had some delicious local limes that were some different variety than conventional, kinda like a Meyer lemon to a Eureka lemon. They did not know the name of the lime, but they sure were good.
I also had good pastry from Living Foods and good quality seafood, too. They could use a little help with their espresso bar, but I found the place to be a great place to shop for high quality food stuff while in Poipu. The Poipu area dining scene has really improved since we were last there three years ago, its really the place to go.
We did not make it to eat at Gaylord's or Hukilau Lanai in Wailua. We had a salad and a frittata at Bar Acuda in Hanalei, which were fine, but we didn't sample enough dishes to really be able to review the place. It was very hot inside with the open kitchen. We ate on the front veranda, but they have a few tables in the breezeway (next to the outdoor tables of Neide's) with that amazing view of the mountains, but they told us they didn't have enough staff that evening to open those tables up. Too bad, it would've been a fantastic place to sit and eat and feel the breeze.
Yeah, we ate mostly in Poipu, so that's what I focused on in my report. We had a good plate lunch in Hanapepe at Bobbie's
and I know those folks can use the business, so I was happy to support a small local business out there. I saw some tourists go in and look and then leave, which disappointed me. One older couple were from the South, dressed in fancy yachting clothes. They asked us if the food was good (before ours arrived) and we said we didn't know yet. As they walked out, I told them that many of the best BBQ places in the South, the real authentic ones, don't look like much and you can't judge the food by the fanciness of the decor, but that didn't convince them to stay and give Bobbie's a try. It made me sad.
We also had some pretty good fish plate lunch at Kilaeua Fish Market. Nothing amazing, but still tasty and good quality.
And we went to Hamura's. My wife is recently on a gluten free diet and they did not have any udon or soba noodles there, so we decided to get an extra large ramen bowl so she could have some broth with her BBQ chicken. I ended up eating the entire bowl of noodles by myself minus the few sips of broth she had. I'm a small guy and a light eater, but I put that bowl down like the big local boys sitting next to us, I was proud of myself! Took awhile to feel unstuffed afterwards, but it was "...oh so sweet, it was heavenly..." as Israel Kamakawiwoʻole would sing!!
All our breakfasts were made by me in the condo, macadamia nut pancakes with coconut syrup and fresh mango with Kalaheo or Kona coffee, yum! And lunches were often just ahi sashimi from Koloa Fish Market with taro chips and a can of Maui Blonde ale!
Most of the best fine dining places on Kauai seem to be in Poipu, but its good to get to some of the more local spots, too, which we did as the schedule allowed. We only drove thru Lihue, Kapa'a, Wailua and Hanalei once, spent most of our time on the south shore. I surfed Pakala or Waiohai everday and got a lot of aloha in the water, especially at Pakala. If I had more time there, I'd explore more for the hidden gems on the island.
re: Beach Chick
Aloha, beach chick and thanks for the recs. Have a great time on Kauai!
If you go to Merriman's be sure and get a side of their Molokai palau, its purple sweet potatoes mashed with coconut milk, it was freakin' delicious!
A friend of mine is there now and he said he had a really good meal at Oasis at Wailpouli Beach Resort.
Thanks for your report. We are headed to Kauai for 8 days next month. We're spending the first half of the trip in Hanalei and the second half in Poipu, where most of our lunches and dinners are already booked by the conference we're attending. We have one night free for dinner. I was just about to post something asking for feedback on my list and seeking recommendations for where to go if you had one dinner in Poipu. With your report - and Beach Chick's endorsement - I've made the decision, Red Salt it is! Aloha!
re: Beach Chick
So happy to hear your heading back to the islands..love love love the Grand Hyatt..if Ronald is at the Front Desk, he is so wonderful and ask he can hook you up with the buffet coupons per diam. (unless you have a package deal that includes it).
Stevenson library for drinks and apps, Dondero's for 4 course meal for $50 pp..not a fan of Tidepools...grill at the pool has some decent food for pool food.
Hamura Saimins for lunch in Lihue is off the chain good...lilikoi pie and saimin.
Red Salt for breakfast/lunch/ or dinner is fantastic!
Keoki's Paradise for happy hour and they make one of the best chicken stir fry with tons of veggies and great to split..
Kauai isn't known for their fab food like O'ahu but it can be found but at what price..
St. Regis in North Shore is beyond stunning..at least go for drinks and apps..
Tahiti Nui is great for local vibe..along with Dolphins..
Costco is your friend and I like their food court for fast salads and gas fill up before snorkeling tunnels or Poipu.
Beach House and Merriman's are decent but the real star, aloha opinion, is Red Salt.
Bartender Mike is awesome and owns the wine shop up the road.
Best shell cuffs for $5 are at the blowhole and Reyn Spooner shirts and aloha wear on the corner of Kreiss before you go into Hamura's..
Duke's for drinks and apps and pay your respect to the beloved Duke..
The salt water lagoon is so wonderful and you'll spend most of your day if your not snorkeling there..
Kauai has so much aloha and the people are so beautiful inside and out..matches the beauty of the island.