Trop­i­cal, Trend­set­ting Oahu

Oahu

Taste & Travel - - Contents - byLAURA LAURA SUTHER­LAND

LAURA SUTHER­LAND catches Hawaii's culi­nary New Wave.

WE’D AL­READY SNORKELLED SO CLOSE TO a pod of pantrop­i­cal spot­ted dol­phins that we could al­most count their spots. Next stop, the green sea tur­tle spa, an un­der­wa­ter oa­sis where tur­tles con­gre­gate so tiny fish can feast on the al­gae and par­a­sites that stick to their shells and flip­pers.

I ad­justed my mask, stepped off the boat and swam af­ter El­iz­a­beth, our Wild Side Spe­cialty Tour guide. Sure enough, about 100 feet away, five sea tur­tles were sus­pended in wa­ter, legs and heads grace­fully ex­tended while trop­i­cal fish bus­ied them­selves feast­ing and pol­ish­ing. We mar­velled a re­spect­ful dis­tance away un­til El­iz­a­beth mo­tioned us back to the boat.

As we made our way along Oahu’s rugged green coast­line to the dock, we learned more about the crea­tures that in­habit the wa­ters and the peo­ple who set­tled on these lush vol­canic is­lands cen­turies ago. El­iz­a­beth’s ex­pla­na­tion of ‘ca­noe crops’ — plants like co­conut, taro, sweet potato and sug­ar­cane that were brought to the is­lands by Poly­ne­sian ex­plor­ers — was par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing since we were on Oahu to check out its ex­traor­di­nar­ily dy­namic culi­nary scene.

Sug­ar­cane, as we soon found out, is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an in­tox­i­cat­ing re­vival at Kō Hana rum dis­tillery and tast­ing room on Oahu’s west side. The dis­tillery has worked with Honolulu’s Bishop Mu­seum to iden­tify and breed 30 dif­fer­ent heir­loom sug­ar­cane plants, many of which we saw in their demon­stra­tion gar­den. As we sam­pled five rums made from five dif­fer­ent sug­ar­cane va­ri­etals, we noted that they all shared a sweetly grassy flavour (sug­ar­cane is a grass, af­ter all) but each one was unique in its own right.

We made a note to look for es­tab­lish­ments that serve Kō Hana rum, and that night at Mahina and Sun’s Restau­rant in our Waikiki ho­tel — the retro-hip

…This sec­ond wave of in­ven­tive young chefs are mak­ing Oahu one of to­day’s most ex­cit­ing places to eat…

Surf Jack — we spot­ted an Un­kle’s Punch that mixed Kō Hana rum with a heady swirl of Cam­pari, faler­num, lime juice and orange bit­ters. Our favourite dish at din­ner — suc­cu­lent mon­chong fish with roasted ulu (bread­fruit — an­other ca­noe crop) — was paired with a wine that had a par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing story. A Ger­man wine­maker had tasted a va­ri­ety of Mahina’s out­stand­ing fish dishes and re­turned home to craft the per­fect Ries­ling to pair with Hawai­ian fish.

Mahina & Sun’s is the lat­est restau­rant founded by celebrity chef Ed Ken­ney, one of the ‘new wave’ of Oahu culi­nary mas­ters, part of a cre­ative move­ment launched 25 years ear­lier by 12 star-pow­ered is­land chefs who banded to­gether to es­tab­lish Hawai­ian Re­gional Cui­sine and high­light the multi-eth­nic cuisines and agri­cul­ture of the is­lands.

Some of the orig­i­nal 12 still have restau­rants to­day, like Alan Wong, who was raised in Hawaii and brings Asian and Hawai­ian in­flu­ences and in­gre­di­ents to his clas­si­cal French cui­sine. At his Honolulu restau­rant, we tasted dishes like gin­ger-crusted on­aga, (snap­per) topped with spring-crisp corn shoots and a creamy co­conut sor­bet molded into a choco­late ‘co­conut’ shell.

At Chef Mavro’s name­sake restau­rant — an­other mem­ber of the orig­i­nal 12, who moved to Hawaii from Toulouse — his clas­sic French back­ground com­bined with his love of Poly­ne­sia was vividly ap­par­ent in richly flavoured and art­fully plated dishes like kea­hole lob­ster in tamarind broth with pork belly, kaf­fir lime and green pa­paya.

The sea­soned veter­ans and this sec­ond wave of in­ven­tive young chefs are mak­ing Oahu one of to­day’s most ex­cit­ing places to eat. There’s a vi­brant, ef­fort­less, east-meets-west Poly­ne­sian flair to the dishes and a sense of the de­light the chefs take in amus­ing them­selves and in­spir­ing each other.

Take Koko Head Café in a quiet Honolulu neigh­bour­hood where we stopped for brunch. TV per­son­al­ity/chef Lee Ann Wong’s sly riff on eggs Bene­dict, Eggs Haloa, fea­tured poached eggs on a poi bis­cuit with co­conut luau, sour poi hol­landaise and lo­cal greens, and her mi­mosas were de­li­ciously Hawai­ian thanks to fresh guava in­stead of orange juice.

To graze our way through more lo­cal dishes, we booked an Aloha Food Tour of Chi­na­town to ex­plore this old Honolulu neigh­bour­hood where trendy restau­rants and bars are emerg­ing amidst lei-mak­ing shops, fish mar­kets and Chi­nese bak­eries. We sam­pled but­tery-ten­der poke flavoured with shred­ded shiso leaf that gave it a cinnamon kick, a savoury pas­try called a man­a­pua and a bahn mi sand­wich and pho ‘French dip’ at Oahu’s now-leg­endary Pig and the Lady.

The soup and sand­wich were so good that we re­turned the next day to ex­pe­ri­ence more from chef An­drew Le. His take on Viet­namese food uses his mother’s fam­ily recipes, his culi­nary academy chops and his daz­zling cre­ativ­ity to cre­ate dishes like cha ca la vong — fish-of-the-day mar­i­nated in turmeric and galan­gal (a mem­ber of the gin­ger fam­ily), scal­lions, dill, peanuts, rice noo­dles and his fer­mented shrimp and chili sauce that was so de­li­cious we wanted to or­der it by the glass.

Know­ing that the Pig and the Lady first gained fame as a farm­ers’ mar­ket stall in­spired us to visit the Satur­day KCC Farm­ers’ Mar­ket near Di­a­mond Head. There was so much to see and sam­ple — minia­ture grilled abalone sit­ting in opales­cent shells the size of a tea­spoon, sushi slid­ers, fresh pressed sug­ar­cane juice, Hawai­ian-style crêpes and pyra­mids of pa­payas, pineap­ples and ex­otic is­land fruits.

When you’re in Hawaii, it’s hard to re­sist the siren call of a good mai tai, and as we looked out the floor-to­ceil­ing win­dows of our next Waikiki ho­tel room at the Hy­att Cen­tric, we could see the iconic pink Royal Hawai­ian Ho­tel with its sto­ried Mai Tai Bar a few blocks away. We lucked out on a beach­front ta­ble and lazily sipped be­fore we boarded the Holokai Cata­ma­ran for a re­lax­ing sun­set sail as the sun painted the clouds trop­i­cal pinks and or­anges.

Honolulu and Waikiki are the cer­tainly the cen­tre of the culi­nary ac­tion on Oahu, but the North Shore of the is­land where big wave surfers at­tack walls of wa­ter in win­ter has an ex­cit­ing food truck scene. So the next day we drove up the dra­matic coast­line to watch the surfers and eat at lo­cal favourite Gio­vanni’s Shrimp Truck with its deca­dent gar­licky shrimp served on a plate of white sticky rice. In­stead of breath mints, we cooled our palates nearby at Mat­sumoto’s Shave Ice, an Oahu in­sti­tu­tion since 1951. I or­dered a heav­enly trop­i­cal

PHO­TOS THIS SPREAD CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT Din­ing by torch­light in Waikiki; Lisa Asagi, Co­or­di­na­tor of the KCC Farm­ers’ Mar­ket; Bar­be­cued shrimp lunch; Lei mak­ing in Chi­na­town; Kame­hameha statue.

Alan Wong’s Honolulu www.alan­wongs.com

Aloha Food Tours www.alo­hafood­tours.com

Chef Mavro Restau­rant www.chef­mavro.com

Gio­vanni’s Shrimp Truck www.gio­van­nis­shrimptruck.com Holokai Cata­ma­ran www.sail­holokai.com

Hy­att Cen­tric www.cen­tric.hy­att.com

KCC Farm­ers Mar­ket www.hfbf.org/mar­ket

Ko Hana Agri­cole Rum www.ko­ha­narum.com Koko Head Café www.koko­head­cafe.com

Mahina & Sun’s www.sur fjack.com/e at-shop

Mat­sumoto Shave Ice www.mat­sumo­to­shave­ice.com

Mod­ern Honolulu www.hemod­ern­honolulu.com Rav­ish www.rav­ish­honolulu.com

The Pig and Lady www.thep­i­gandthe­lady.com

The Sur­f­jack Ho­tel www.sur­f­jack.com

Wild Side Spe­cialty Tours www.sail­hawaii.com

flavour with co­conut, pineap­ple and tangy li­likoi — a pop­u­lar yel­low pas­sion­fruit.

Back in Waikiki at an­other food-cen­tric ho­tel, the min­i­mal­ist-cool Mod­ern Honolulu, we sat on the pa­tio at Rav­ish Restau­rant over­look­ing the yacht harbour and a beachy la­goon stud­ded with palm trees. As we scru­ti­nized the menu, our server ex­plained that Oahu’s top chefs get prime pick at the early morn­ing fish auctions. Since the sushi chef at Rav­ish had re­cently worked at Mo­ri­moto’s of Iron Chef fame, we fig­ured he’d be first in line. We or­dered a few provoca­tive com­bi­na­tions just for fun, like the surf and turf sushi with ahi, steak, and onions, but the clas­sic sushi had us swoon­ing with cuts of fish so ten­der they truly melted in our mouths.

Sure Hawaii is known best for sun, sand and sea but Oahu’s well-de­served rep­u­ta­tion as a global culi­nary hotspot would lure us back just to eat. We’d make more time to visit the restau­rants we missed, like Ed Ken­ney’s Home and any of orig­i­nal-12 Roy Ya­m­aguchi’s places, and re­turn to the places we loved.

PHO­TOS THIS PAGE CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT A pair of cranes; Head­ing for the North Shore; Hawai­ian New Wave cui­sine.

PHOTO THIS SPREAD Oahu sun­set.

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