Just returned yesterday from a long visit to Kaua’i. There’s been a lot of good reporting on Kaua’i visits over the last year, so I hope I don’t repeat too much.
Red Salt, Ko’a Kea Hotel, Po’ipu – the hotel and restaurant have been open since the middle of April, and the lobby/bar/restaurant has a sleek, modern look, featuring a lot of blacks and whites, that is different from anything we’ve seen on the island before. We ate dinner here twice, and were impressed both times by the potential that the kitchen shows. Our first dinner consisted of an amuse bouche (roasted cherry tomato stuffed with duck confit), starters of seared diver scallop and corn soup, main courses of vanilla seared mahi and grilled ono, and desserts of root beer float and chocolate macadamia tort. The amuse for our second dinner was a moi ceviche (photo attached), then daily special starters of caprese salad and seared foie gras (photos attached), mains of the vanilla seared mahi and strip steak frites, and quattro gelato (photo attached) for dessert. The starters, especially, showed some real creativity and skill in the kitchen. The corn soup came as a small crab and goat cheese fritter in the center of a white bowl surrounded by a line of ground turmeric, ground green coriander, ground coconut, and red salt forming a square around the fritter. The soup was then poured tableside into the bowl. Very delicious and well done. The scallop wasn’t groundbreaking, but was perfectly seared with exquisite flavor and perfect texture. The caprese was a tower of basil leaves and tomato and mozzarella slices, topped with basil sorbet and with little balsamic pedestals flanking it. It might have been a little too cute, but the basil sorbet was fantastic and brought all the flavors and textures together. The foie gras was another creative dish, but had a little too much going on for me. The seared slice was topped with a caramelized pineapple wedge and pineapple foam, and sat on top of Hawaiian sweet bread and hearts of palm and surrounded by a veal demi-glace. The mains were very well prepared but didn’t show the same creativity as the starters. For example, the strip steak frites was a perfectly cooked medium rare prime strip steak with a pile of frites and an accompaniment of three dipping sauces. But it didn’t have that combination of charred, rich beefy flavor and explosion of juices of a good grilled prime steak, and the frites, while very good, didn’t really stand out above any other well-prepared frites. The fish mains featured well-prepared fish and somewhat lackluster sides. By far our favorite dessert was the quattro gelato, which featured pineapple, vanilla, strawberry, and coconut gelati made in-house, as are all their other desserts. Service was outstanding both times, from the bartender to the host to our excellent servers. It appears that chef Ronnie Sanchez has been given a license to create, and he’s doing it. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot we like here. We definitely plan to revisit next year.
Hamura Saimin, Lihu’e – it’s been said by many others, but the saimin noodles are the best we’ve had. They even had perfect texture after we got one order to go, with a 15 minute delay from picking it up to eating it. The special saimin, with sliced pork, hard boiled egg, Chinese mustard greens, and won tons, is the second best dish there. The best dish is the liliko’i pie. We stopped in 3 times for pie alone. Mark’s Place Two in Lawa’i just added saimin to its menu, and I thought it would prove to be a worthy contender for top dog. But, Hamura is still the king. The broth at Mark’s was saltier than Hamura, and the noodles were too soft. Likewise, my go-to super saimin at Waipouli Restaurant, though it has more stuff than the special at Hamura, disappointed with its too-soft noodles and way too salty broth.
Mark’s Place – we haven’t found anything on the menu that isn’t fantastic (except the teri beef, which is a little salty; the saimin is good, just not the best), and the second store in Lawa’i also has ginger fried chicken, which are nuggets from heaven. The only caveat with the fried chicken is that the nuggets are bone-in thigh pieces which could contain some bone chips from chopping the thighs before frying.
Lihu’e Barbecue Inn – another place that’s consistently good with its locally oriented menu. With soup, salad, and a slice of cream pie (from about six different choices) included, it’s a great deal. Also, there’s a list of Chef Ruven’s daily specials, which are a little more upscale and a little pricier. The pan fried ahi belly from that list on one visit was very good. On other visits, we had kalua pig & cabbage (one of my favorite comfort foods), meat loaf, teri beef, and fried shrimp.
Bar Acuda, Hanalei – we ended up here after a frustrating wait for a table at Nanea, and it turned out to be one of our best meals. On a previous visit the menu had a handful of main plates to go with its dozen or so tapas, but on this night the menu had no mains, 17 tapas and 7 desserts. We had beets with goat cheese, bacalao, house made chorizo, lamb chop, mahi mahi, banderillas, seared scallop, and house made limoncella. The bacalao, chorizo, scallop, and beets with goat cheese were especially good.
Kintaro, Wailua – we go here every year, and everything we’ve ever had here is good. This year my favorites were the hamachi belly sashimi (like buttah) and the fried salmon skin.
Duke’s Barefoot Bar Tuesday happy hour – this was a guilty pleasure, fish tacos for $2.50 each. They’re not going to remind anyone of Ensenada, but it’s a good sized piece of breaded fried mahi mahi sitting on shredded cabbage, salsa, and cream sauce in a lightly grilled flour tortilla. The garlic chili paste you get when you request hot sauce really adds good flavor. Eat two of these, and there’s room for hula pie. If you have more than two, you might as well have four or five. Happy hour goes from 4-6, and it’s best to get there early to get a better table and parking. On our last visit, we were a little late and ended up by the fish pond, but there was a cloudburst while we were there, and people from several semi-outdoor tables had to run for cover, while we watched from our dry table.
Kaua’i Bakery, Kukui Grove – the cream filled malasadas were another guilty pleasure. We got lucky the first time and got recently fried malasadas filled to order because they’d just run out in the display case. But even the ones from the display case were good.
Olympic Café – we only ate breakfast here. The french toast and the scrambles are terrific. The french toast is 4 thick slices of Hawaiian sweet bread dipped in eggs, then rolled on the edges in chopped macadamia nuts before frying. Our favorite scramble was the artichoke.
Kapa’a farmers’ market – great produce at great prices, but it was hot and muggy shopping.
We’ll definitely visit the above places next year. We also went to:
Fine/almost fine dining – Beach House, Plantation Gardens, Roy’s, Eastside, Gaylord’s
Burgers – TnT, Duane’s, Kalapaki Beach Hut, Duke’s Barefoot Bar
Pizza – Brick Oven Waipouli, Brick Oven Kalaheo, Bobby V’s (Bobby V’s just opened in early June)
Mexican/New Mexican – Monico’s, Verde
Breakfast – Waipouli, Eggbert’s, Market St Diner
Lunch/Dinner – JJ’s Broiler, Caffe Coco