Restaurants & Bars

Good eats on the Big Island (LONG!)

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Good eats on the Big Island (LONG!)

Pancakex | Mar 21, 2006 05:59 PM

Just got back from a week on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and had some great food.

After originally planning to eat at Pahu I'a (vs. Canoe House) and Merriman's (vs. Daniel Thiebault) based on the majority of reviews I'd read online, we actually ate at all of the above, and more places to boot. I had also planned on a dinner at Huggo's on the waterfront in Kona, but decided to cancel our reservations because we stopped in one night for dessert and had terrible service. Normally, I don't really care about bad service, as long as the food is good. But Huggo's can be just as expensive as Pahu I'a and Merriman's, and the food is NOT as good as these places. More on that later, though. My summary of Big Island eats follows, but in short: YUM! :)

As to the Pahu I'a vs. Canoe House debate, you can't really lose if you eat at either of them. But if you're a foodie, and you're even driving through the Kohala (coast north of Kona) resort area, you should try at least one of them. I slightly preferred the food at Canoe House (more Hawaiian tastes) than at Pahu I'a, but the menus change so often at both that this might not always be the case. And they're both more than acceptable.

Canoe House
We walked into Canoe House without reservations, sandy and damp from snorkeling, with our beach towels and snorkeling gear. Despite a raised eyebrow from the hostess, we were treated well and our server was excellent. Their special that day was hamakua mushroom risotto rolled in panko and deep-fried, served on a bed of greens with some local-flavored vinaigrette (lilikoi?) which was delicious.

They had plain, chilled unsalted butter and a basket of warm, fresh bread. I liked the assortment of bread better at Pahu I'a and Merriman's, but it was good, especially when you're hungry! Their fruity drinks are great - husband got a strawberry daiquiri and I got a strong and tasty mai tai.

For dinner, I got the "Grilled Rack of Lamb with Volcano Island White Honey/Meyer Lemon/Macadamia Nut Crust, with Purple Potato and Coconut Curry Puree, Spiced Zinfandel Reduction". Oh, it was delicious. The sweet crust on the lamb was great, and not something I commonly see on menus. The purple potato/coconut curry puree and green beans were delicious and perfectly complementary to the sweet crust on the lamb. My husband got the seafood salad ("Kona-Raised Maine Lobster, Dungeness Crab, Tiger Prawns, Maui Onion-Cilantro Vinaigrette"), which I tried, and the cilantro/maui onion vinaigrette was awesome. Nice, fresh salad with (as is par for the course on the Big Island) the most delicious, fresh tomatoes, as well as avocado and mixed lettuces. The Kona-raised Maine lobster is, to my Maine tastebuds, just as good as the original. I thought it was a bit weird traveling from Seattle to Hawai'i only to eat Dungeness crab, but that was good, too.

For dessert, I had "Kea'au Bananas Foster with Cinnamon Balsamic Ice Cream, Hazelnut Crisp" and my husband had the "Chocolate Mousse Cake with Lilikoi Bavarian Center, Passion Fruit Coulis, Macadamia Nut Brittle". Both of these were absolutely delicious, and the cinnamon balsamic ice cream was really tasty! Good flavors. The lilikoi (passion fruit) cream in the center of the chocolate mousse cake went SO well with the rich chocolate. The perfect combination of rich, buttery chocolate and sweet/tart fruit. The macadamia nut brittle and hazelnut crisp the desserts were served with were obviously made in-house as well and were nice touches.

My only complaint about Canoe House is that we were charged $12 for one coffee pot - a record, even for the high-priced Kohala resort area. For the privilege of us both drinking from the same press pot, I Guess? Our two cups of coffee were $6 each. Ouch!

Pahu I'a
The very next night we had reservations for Pahu I'a, and it was interesting when we came back a few nights later after making reservations that very same day. The first night we went, I'd made reservations 2 weeks in advance and requested a table on the lanai. Our waitress was excellent, the view of the ocean was beautiful, and we watched whales jumping out in the water while we ate. The second night we came, we'd made reservations only hours before, so of course we couldn't get a table on the lanai, and were seated in one of the indoor dining rooms. Though they're all open to the outdoors and you can see the ocean and palms out on the beach merely steps away from the restaurant. Our server this time was not as good, but I watched her and she must have had 10 different tables.

On our first trip to Pahu I'a, we started with the usual fruity drinks - strawberry daiquiri and a mai tai. The drinks are certainly bigger here than at Canoe House, but they are evenly matched for quality. The bread basket here is great - crispy, salty lavash, small, crackly wheat rolls, and warm slices of a walnut-studded loaf are served with 3 different chilled butters: hamakua mushroom, unsalted, and lemon mascarpone.


Both times we went, I got the seafood sampler appetizer pictured before the cut: "Crispy crab cake, traditional prawn cocktail, chinese-style ahi sashimi, carpaccio of kampachi, citrus relish." The crab cake is delicious - it's served with an apple slaw and a vanilla cream sauce. It's not often that you find a savory application of vanilla, but this WORKED. Yum. The house-made cocktail sauce was great, the sashimi fresh and expertly sliced, and thin-shaved kampachi carpaccio served with wedges of fresh citrus - orange, grapefruit, and lemon. The presentation was beautiful, too, with each individual appetizer served on a tiny square plate that made up 4 quarters on a larger plate. We also tried the crispy kalua pork, which is served on a bed of spinach with a port wine sauce. Great taste combination, and tasty kalua pork, though the best we had was at Bamboo Restaurant in Hawi.

Deciding that the kampachi sounded good, I went with grilled kampachi for my entree: "Ka'u Orange, fennel, sweet corn lobster fritters, liliko'i essence". The fish was a bit on the dry side, but I hadn't actually every had it cooked before - I always get it at sushi restaurants in its raw state. The lilikoi sauce was delicious, as most things that involve lilikoi are, and the sweet corn lobster fritters were crispy and perfect for getting the last bits of sauce on my plate. My husband tried the handcrafted potato gnocchi with hamakua mushrooms and shaved aged gouda. It practically melted in my mouth when I tasted it. The manager stopped by to ask how things were and informed us that (as I had assumed) the gnocchi was made fresh every day. So tender and the cheese sauce and mushrooms were just excellent additions to a very savory dish - tastes like this always make me think of the Japanese concept of "umami", a savory taste that isn't recognized traditionally as part of the basic tastes like salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. Anyway, an excellent use of local ingredients with the tasty little hamakua mushrooms.

Since we were so full, we decided to share a small but very powerful Valhrona chocolate cake, served with a tiny shot glass of coffee mousse, and a press-pot of 100% Kona coffee. I made sure to request just ONE pot of coffee for the two of us after the Canoe House's $6 cup of coffee. I mean, it IS Kona. But still :)

Pahu I'a (part 2)
my husband suggested eating at Pahu I'a again because it was so good the last time. We booked a table for that night and after some phone tag, had reservations for 6:45. Unlike the last table, which I'd reserved a couple of weeks in advance, this one was inside, though in a room that was open to the outside and looking out over the beach and water. Our waitress wasn't nearly as good this time, nor was the food, in my opinion. I mean, it was good, but it left me thinking that maybe next time we should go to Canoe House twice instead. The appetizer plate was again delicious, as were the breads. This time I got a martini, which was delicious, and we both had fish specials. I thought mine sounded better on the menu than it actually turned out: "pan fried ono, with soba noodles, mixed vegetables and prawns and a vietnamese sauce." The prawns had a strange texture, like they were dried? Very strange. Maybe they'd been previously frozen or something, I don't know. They weren't flavorful enough for it to make sense that they'd be used for seasoning, because I can only assume that their mushy texture was not their selling point. The dish basically just tasted like a $38 stirfry, and the fish was, again, a bit dry. my husband seemed to like his better. I had a delicious chocolate souffle for dessert, and my husband had chocolate cake. After your meal they leave you with a little chocolate wafer and a shot glass of chocolate mousse or some other little thing, which is nice.

I'm surprised at what a difference it can make whether or not you have reservations for some of these places, but it was a nice surprise being seated promptly at the Canoe House on a Friday night around dinner time anyway, looking like complete beach bums. And Merriman's was completely welcoming for dinner on a Sunday night with no reservations. Huggo's wans't a good experience without reservations, and we probably would have had a better server at Pahu I'a if we'd had reservations. I'm pretty sure that the lanai seating area there is like restaurant heaven - it's where the good people go to get great service and beautiful views of the ocean. I think my choosing the wrong things on our second night was the problem, though. I'd definitely eat there again; I think the lesser experience could probably have been just a fluke.

Merriman's
We didn't have to go far for Merriman's, since it's right in Waimea, where we stayed at the B&B. I think service was not up to what it could have been. Though it was great, I bet it would have been awesome if we hadn't arrived at the tail end of an entire tour bus full of people finishing their meals. And having reservations might have helped, though they got us a table promptly anyway. Our waiter was great, answered all our questions, and chatted with us a little once all the tour bus people had left. We got a wine sampler, though only a couple of the wines were any good. Their bread basket was nice, and filled with warm, fresh bread. Not as nice as our B&B proprietor made it out to be, but nice. The bread basket, I mean :)

We got an appetizer sampler that included chili grilled shrimp (served with a delicious mango sauce!), a kalua pig and onion quesadilla, and a goat cheese/mango tart. The tart was the best. I wasn't really impressed with their kalua pig quesadilla, though. We had them pretty much everywhere we went, and I think the best was at Bamboo. I got the tomato salad, as the tomatoes on the Big Island are not to be missed. "Vine ripened lokelani tomatoes, maui onions, blue cheese, anchovies and capers." It's served with a little beaker of good olive oil to serve over the salad. Delicious. So simple, but when the ingredients are of that quality, they're the real stars. Mmm, I should grow some tomatoes this summer!

my husband got the Merriman's mixed plate, with Ponzu Mahi Mahi, Filet Steak Medallion and Hamakua Mushrooms, Wok Charred Ahi. A little taste of everything, it looks like a much better deal than what I got, which was just the filet steak for about the same price! Good steak, though, served with fresh, local Loeffler corn and mashed potatoes. Mmm, comfort food! Good for the chilly nights in Waimea, which is about 2500 feet above sea level. We got used to our ears popping a lot while we were driving around!

For dessert, we had a press pot of Kona coffee (of course). What was surprising was that there were three different kinds of 100% Kona coffee on the dessert menu! From three different local farms. We didn't know which one to choose, so we went with the waiter's suggestion. If it's the waitstaff's favorite, it should work for me. I had the Coconut Creme Brûlée, which was served with Cinnamon Chocolate Shortbread. Mmm, good stuff! A peaberry coffee and two normal 100% Kona coffees were listed on the menu. Thinking back, I have no idea why I didn't choose the peaberry if it was the same price as the others, but oh well. The one we had was very good, and I brought back some peaberry coffee to have at home.

I was tempted to get beef at some of the other restaurants we went to, but Merriman's seems to be one of the only restaurants on the island that actually serves local beef. I mean, there are COWS everywhere! Why do you need to fly in beef from the mainland? Perfectly good grass-fed cows are roaming the islands pastures in the thousands.

Peter Merriman "gets it", which is the big appeal of his restaurant. It might not be right on the beach, or attached to a fancy resort with its own bungalows and golf course, but he cares about the food that he uses in his restaurant to such an extent that you even know where the corn comes from. That's pretty cool! Other restaurants use the obligatory local ingredients like mac nuts and passion fruit, but you can't really tell whether they're just doing that because it's easy, convenient, and cheap, or if they really care. The menu at Merriman's actually says, right at the top, "Organically grown produce and chemical-free products used whenever possible". And, obviously, local chevre, maui onions, Big Island beef, Waimea greens, local tomatoes, corns, broccoli, sugar snap peas, green beans, and local-caught fish. The further this stuff travels to get to your plate, the better it tastes, so it's not just supporting the local economy and community. It was pretty cool walking into the restaurant and seeing pictures of employees visiting local farms and being involved. It's not just paying the bills, you know? I like that.

Daniel Thiebault's
I wasn't planning on going to , because I'd heard more than a few reviews saying that Merriman's is better. And... Merriman's is better. I had good food at Daniel Thiebault's, but it wasn't as good as Merriman's, and there isn't that hippie, local ingredients appeal, either. The inside of the place is certainly more interesting, being housed in an old general store building. And they have sushi. The sushi was good, but my husband complained about the rice not being vinegar-y enough. True, but the fish sure was fresh! I had a rack of lamb/mahi mahi combination served with a very tasty sauce, fingerling potatoes, and some fresh julienned vegetables. my husband had assorted sushi, which I tasted, and it was good. I had a tomato and onion salad that was good, but not memorable. I remember the Merriman's tomato salad much more vividly. We also tried the kalua pork quesadilla here (of course!) which was great. For desserts, we went with a strawberry theme, since they're local, and delicious - my husband got the strawberry cheesecake ice cream and I got the Millefeuille of Waimea strawberries and Vanilla Sauce. The ice cream was delicious and creamy, though disappointing to my husband, who I think was expecting nice big chunks of cheesecake in the ice cream. The millefeuille was like a strawberry shortcake, only instead of shortcake, think thin, crispy layers of phyllo dough puff pastry type stuff. Very yummy. Strawberries are definitely the high point of a meal here! I would return for lunch, but I think dinner is too expensive for what you get.

Bamboo
The food at Bamboo is awesome, and very reasonably priced, but the service can be a little spotty. We went here for lunch twice. The first time we had a waitress who was either very forgetful or had taken one too many hits from the bong. We asked for the appetizer sampler, which never arrived. I didn't know whether to be relieved or slightly more annoyed that it didn't even make its way onto the receipt. my husband got the bbq pork sandwich, which is SO GOOD. We got waffle fries and cole slaw that day. The coleslaw has pineapple in it, which is pretty tasty and different. I got the fresh fish sandwich, because it's the best. Served on the softest foccacia that starts falling apart after a few minutes, so you have to end up eating your sandwich with a fork and knife. But it's so tasty that you don't tend to mind. We didn't get dessert this time.

We returned a few days later for another lunch and our waiter was much better. Hawai'i certainly isn't known for its great service as far as I can tell, unless you're paying dearly for it at one of the Kohala resorts, but he didn't forget any food, and at least more than a couple of friendly words came out of his mouth, so he was a winner in my book. I got the lilikoi iced tea here, which I don't know HOW I missed the first time. Delicious. This time we actually got the appetizer sampler, which was great - Chicken Sate Pot Stickers (lined with peanut butter!), grilled shrimp with Thai coconut sauce, and kalua pork quesadilla with rice and salad. Mmm, their grilled shrimp were so good - the sauce was some kind of mango coconut curry sauce. YUM! my husband got the bbq pork sandwich again, which I tasted even more of, and I got the fresh fish sandwich again. Mahi mahi is my friend. Well, ok, or my enemy. It depends on who you talk to. It must have been rice day, because I was offered that, or potato mac salad. If you know anything about Hawaiian food, it's that they love both of these items. Most places will offer you "two scoop rice" or "one scoop rice, one scoop mac salad" with your lunch. The mac salad was awesome. Creamy, sweet. I wish I could get mine to come out like that. We even splurged on dessert here for lunch - cheesecake. my husband got the white chocolate lilikoi cheesecake and I got the kona coffee cheesecake with mac nut crust. BEST cheesecake I've ever had. It was so good. And, of course, because dessert is sad without it, a little press pot of 100% Kona coffee. Do you see a recurring theme to our vacation? Yes, being wired on caffeine!

Huggo's
We were planning on having dinner at Huggo's, but we stopped in for dessert the night we got in, and were treated so badly that we decided our money would be better spent elsewhere. The food is OK, but you're basically paying for sitting at a table that's literally over the water. You can look down and see the waves washing over the rocks a few feet below. We went here and had a nice dinner last time we were on the Big Island, but after eating at Canoe House and Pahu I'a, we realized that we could get WAY better food for the same price, and not have to deal with the bad service we got when we stopped in for dessert. When we got there, the hostess asked if we had reservations. We didn't. She looks slightly confused. She told us it would be a few minutes. After waiting for a few seconds, she told us she had our table - nice! Right by the railing, looking out over the water at the booze cruise floating out in the open water, watching eels slither around the rocks below. The hostess handed us menus, which is when I think things went south - we told her we were just getting dessert, which seemed to short-circuit her brain somehow. "Dessert?" she said, staring at us blankly. "Dessert. Yes. Us. Dessert." She said she'd be right back with the dessert menus, and she was. It seemed like no one wanted to be bothered with us after it turned out we weren't going to drop one or two hundred dollars that night. "Just dessert?" the waiter asked? After confirming that YES WE JUST WANT DESSERT once again, we ordered chocolate cake, mac nut pie (think pecan pie, but with macadamia nuts. Good stuff!) and coffee, and commenced relaxing. As much as we could with a table of disgruntled tourists to one side and a couple sitting through a time share spiel to the other side. The disgruntled tourist table seemed like they didn't like their food (or anything, really) and then started pointing and gawking at the "snakes" in the water. "I thought Hawai'i didn't have snakes!" one woman asked, sounding like she was mentally preparing to sue the state for false advertising. THEY'RE EELS, someone informed them, which seemed to calm everyone down. Our waiter came with our desserts, coffee (black, no sugar or cream offered - OK, I can see how you all think that your coffee is hot shit, but please. At least offer me some damn cream.), and the check. Having washed his hands of the troublesome dessert-only table, he returned to the big spenders and ignored us until he saw our credit card peeking out of the check book at us. Then he brought us our receipt, said nothing, and went away again. Okieeee...

Usually bad service doesn't bother me. And I can't blame it on having been spoiled by all the great service at Canoe House, Pahu I'a, Merriman's, and Daniel Thiebault, because this was the very night we arrived on the island. We hadn't been anywhere else yet. This was the first place we went to. I guess I was just shocked at how incompetent everyone seemed. I mean, ok, you can be shocked, or appalled that I don't have reservations, or that I'm just getting dinner. But the rules of customer service say that you keep that to yourself and start turning on the charm so we'll leave you a big, fat tip. But that didn't happen here. The place wasn't busy. Our waiter was hanging out at the kitchen, chatting with one of his coworkers every time I looked over. It was about 8:00 pm, and they're open until 10, so they weren't about to close. I could totally understand hurried service if we'd walked into a restaurant just as they were about to close, but that was not the case here. I've worked in a cheezy nautical-themed seafood restaurant with better service than this place, which is one of the better-known restaurants in Kona. I think the main thing that got to me was that I didn't want to come back, drop $150 on dinner, and get service like this. So we skipped out on our reservation with them later in the week and went someplace else.

Cafe Pesto
Cafe Pesto is by far our favorite "I could eat here every day and maybe even afford it" restaurants on the Big Island. And conveniently, there's one at both ends - in Kawaihae, near where we stayed, and in Hilo, where we ate when we took a day trip to Hilo. Both locations appeared to have the same menu, and both have great food. Pizzas are tasty, as are salads, and their killer half iced tea/half lemonad "hilo sunrise". I am still craving a hilo sunrise and a crab cake salad. SO GOOD. The Crab Cake Salad with honey-miso vinaigrette, baby greens, and pickled namasu was one of the most perfect combinations of flavors I've ever tasted. The recipe is available on Cafe Pesto's website, and I'm definitely going to try it. They did, however, leave out the delicious local tomatoes from the recipe, which I loved.

We went here for dinner before checking into the B&B on the very first day we arrived on the island, when I thought it would be a good idea to get a Caesar salad and was then surprised when it was kind of bland and unexciting. HELLOO, it's a Caesar salad. They are inherently boring. You can get one anywhere in the world and it will taste the same. Next time we got the crab cake salad (again, YUM) and a southwest pizza (cilantro pesto, chipotle barbecue chicken, red onions, Big Island goat cheese). I'm not really a big fan of pizza. Theirs is good - cheesy, good ingredients, but it's still pizza. There are many other things I'd rather get, but if you like pizza, you'll almost certainly like theirs. my husband likes the toscana calzone, which has prosciutto ham, mushrooms and grainy Dijon mustard in it. Good, but again - meh, pizza-type thing!

They have great desserts, too. I tried the Hot Keanakolu Apple Crisp, which has a macadamia nut crumb topping. I love macadamia nuts. I was seriously bummed when we spotted a roadside stand selling fresh-roasted mac nuts for $3 and I only had a dollar. CRY! I meant to bring some home, but alas, now I'm stuck with inferior, stale-tasting mainland mac nuts.

So, that about sums it up. We ate at a couple of other little places, and had great breakfasts every morning at the B&B, but these are the memorable ones, whether that's because they were so great (Pahu I'a) or so bad (Huggo's).

As always, I ended up only taking a handfull of pictures of the food we ate and the restaurants we were at. I promise I'll do better next time, but it does make me feel a bit of a fool sitting in a nice dining room and snapping pictures of the bread basket, our appetizers, etc. Meh! I'm sure no one cares, and I've found that the only downside to bringing your camera (especially now, with my pro-looking Digital Rebel XT) it can only serve to convince all the staff that you're an undercover food critic of some sort :D

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