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.
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