Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eating the Aloha!

There are times when you don't realize just how perfect the timing of your vacation was until you schedule it and go.  When Kevin and I planned a trip to Hawaii as an early celebration of our 15th anniversary (actual date is October), I was a little skeptical of him booking the trip on a major winter holiday break (Valentine's Day, President's Day, and Midwinter Break).  It turned out to be the perfect time to go as temperatures in NY for the first few days of our trip ranged from single digits to -1 degree.  Even though it might have been a bit more crowded in resort areas, I was grateful to be in Hawaii that week.

I tend to feel a bit of foodie guilt when I travel.  Although meals are an integral part of most vacations, I am not adventurous in seeking my meals and I don't make food the focus of my trips.  I don't go too far off the beaten path to find that spot only the locals and a few lucky outsiders know about.  I don't rent a place with a kitchen and then shop the local markets to produce my own version of fresh homemade specialties.

My priorities on vacation are seeing as many interesting sights as I can and indulging in whatever activities are available to me.  I will eat a hotel breakfast so I don't lose too much of my morning.  I'll eat lunch wherever I can grab it.   At the end of a long day, I will try to pick an interesting restaurant to eat at, but it's usually something convenient to my hotel.  I have been known to end up in places that cater heavily to tourists, even if I'm not aware of it at the time.  I sometimes eat unknowingly eat at national chains (just ones I don't know about because they aren't in my neck of the woods).  I even go to Starbucks.  I can at least say I never eat at McDonalds, The Olive Garden, Applebees, or any similar sort of places.

I ate at a mix of places in Hawaii. Most of my meals were excellent, whether they were touristy or not.  Food may not have been the star of my vacation, but it was a stellar supporting player.  Since I enjoyed the food so much, it certainly deserves a starring role on the blog.

Day 1:  We arrived at our hotel in Waikiki, the Outrigger Reef on the Beach in the evening.   During our 10.5 hour flight we were served a meal and multiple snacks, so I wasn't terribly hungry, but I was also eager to start snarfing the local chow. We chose the hotel's casual poolside restaurant The Kani Ka Pila Grill.

The open-air bar and restaurant faced the street rather than the ocean, but had tables around the nicely-landscaped pool and more tables in a torchlit garden behind the bar.

I decided to try to eat lighter and just eat an appetizer and a salad instead of a full entree.  That turned out to be a wise decision.  The "appetizer" was pork adobo.  It was definitely a meal in itself.  It was a hearty pork stew.  I like to think of it as Hawaiian comfort food.  This was the portion.  Who needed a main course after this?

I thought it was a bit bland and salty, but I learned this is pretty typical of Hawaiian cuisine.  Salt is the main seasoning and they use a lot of it.  This came with the sticky rice that is also quite typical.

I don't remember what the drink was called, but it had wine, coconut flavor, and melon liqueur.

Day 2:  We tried another hotel restaurant, The Shore Bird, for the breakfast buffet.  It was pretty standard stuff:  Pastries, eggs, French toast (on Hawaiian bread), home fries, and lots of fruit.  The fresh pineapple is as outstanding as you expect Hawaiian pineapple to be.  They also had a carving station that served up some of the best ham I ever had.  The only ham I ever ate that was better was the heritage ham I served at Christmas.

The best part of the Shore Bird was the view though.  This was another open air restaurant (as most of the ground floor of the Outrigger is open air).  It sat on the beach side of the hotel, so we could eat breakfast overlooking the ocean.
At dinner time Shore Bird has a giant grill and diners cook their own dinner on it.  We never had a chance to try it because it was too difficult to get a reservation for dinner.  This is no big loss we as we usually wanted to venture away from the hotel at night.

We spent the afternoon of Day 2 on a bus tour that took us around various points on the North Shore.  The area is known for its food trucks and small casual food shacks.  Our tour took us to one called Fumi's.

The specialty at Fumi's is the butter garlic shrimp, which Kevin said was delicious.  The menu consisted mostly of shrimp dishes, but I went for some tasty chicken katsu, because it's me.  The chicken was a bit spicier than the typical chicken katsu I usually eat.  The sauce was also fruitier.  There was more of that sticky rice of course.

 The standout feature of Fumi's is that they raise their own shrimp in these ponds.  Pretty cool.

We had homemade ice pops for dessert.  They come in mango and coconut.  I went for the coconut and Kevin went for the mango.  Creamy, fresh, and delicious.

For dinner that night we went to Cheeseburger, a Hawaii-based chain that serves much more than cheeseburgers.  We went to the location at the Beach Walk, a small strip of stores and restaurants a block from our hotel.  Even though we weren't trying out the authentic local dives, we can at least say we left the hotel.
We were able to get seating on the balcony, overlooking the busy Waikiki street.
 My cocktail for the evening was a cosmo made with orange and passionfruit juices instead of cranberry juice.
 Dinner was Kalbi short ribs.  I am used to eating slow-braised,  bone-in short ribs.  It seems it's common in Hawaii to use Korean style short ribs, which are sliced thin.  They are marinated in a sweet marinade and grilled.  They are surprisingly tender this way and the bit of char on the meat is perfect.  The sticky rice continued its omnipresence and was also joined with another traditional side of macaroni salad.
Day 3 - This was a long day without much food for most of it.  We took a bus tour of Pearl Harbor and the USS Missouri.  We left quite early in the morning so that meant a grab-and-go breakfast and some hot dogs for lunch.  There was a large concession at the Missouri serving more substantial meals, including kalua pork, but I had a choice between a leisurely lunch and a more extended tour.  I chose the latter.

I found this cookbook in the Pearl Harbor gift shop.  I decided not to buy it.

For dinner we returned to the Beach Walk and tried a place called The Yard House.  This was hardly a traditional Hawaiian restaurant, but it just looked like a fun place to have dinner.  It is named in honor of those yard-long beer glasses they drink in England.  They had a vast selection of beers on tap.

I had no idea until I came home that this was a national chain (although not a large one).  They do seem to change the menu at different locations to showcase local specialties.

Despite the selection of beers, I drank a watermelon margarita with elderflower liquer and citrus agave syrup.

There was Nashville Hot Chicken on the menu and since it's a trendy dish these days, I decided to try it.  I wasn't horribly impressed.  It wasn't bad.  It just didn't taste particularly special.  I suppose one should order Nashville Hot Chicken a bit closer to Nashville rather than in Hawaii.  The sweet potatoes pancakes were outstanding though.

We ordered dessert this night.  This was a giant s'mores brownie.  The brownie sat on a graham cracker crust and was topped with toasted marshmallows.  Kevin wasn't crazy about it.  We opted to share dessert and I let him order, but he said he wasn't sure what made him order this as he doesn't really like marshmallows. 

Day 4 - This morning we boarded a plane and went to the Big Island for the day to see Volcanoes National Park.  Our guide took us to a convenience store/coffee bar for breakfast, so there was nothing special on that meal.

We had lunch at the Volcano House, the restaurant in the park.  I had a Hawaiian "bento".  I finally was able to eat my kalua pork.  Like the adobo pork from the first night, it was a bit too salty and not enough of other seasonings.  I guess that really is typical.  There were also the typical accompaniments of sticky rice and macaroni salad along with a green salad and some fresh fruit.  The white thing in the corner was dessert.  I can only compare it to a flan or a panna cotta flavored with fresh coconut. 

 This was the view from our table.

After a long day we flew back to Oahu and made it back to our hotel around 10PM.  The Shore Bird has a late night bar menu.

Day 5 - It was Sunday and the brunch crowd flooded the Shore Bird, so we decided to try our luck at Kani Ka Pila instead.  Kevin didn't feel like exploring the neighborhood for other options.

I tried another Hawaiian classic, the loco moco.  For those not acquainted with this dish, it's an egg on top of a hamburger on top of rice.  Then it's covered in gravy.  I don't know if it should be considered comfort food or stoner food.  Maybe it's a little of both?  It's so wrong, but it's so right!

I wasn't hungry by lunch time.  That loco moco carried me to the top of Le'Ahi (AKA Diamond Head) and back down.  I may not have been hungry, but it was a long, hot sweaty climb (although the heat was infinitely preferable to the -1 degree weather in NY), and it deserved some refreshment, so I had a shave ice.  This was watermelon and passionfruit.

Did I mention this was Valentine's Day?  Although we had planned our days to the hour with stuff to do, the one plan we hadn't made in advance was Valentine's Day dinner.  We went to the concierge and begged him to find us something nice somewhere.  He got us a late reservation at Il Lupino, an Italian restaurant.  I was a bit skeptical.  I didn't come all the way to Hawaii to eat Italian food.  How good could Italian food be on the other side of the planet?

The answer:  It can be good.  I can be very good.  This may be some of the best Italian food I have had outside of Italy.

It's a beautiful restaurant that sits at the far end of one of the malls on Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag on Waikiki.  It's spacious and charming.

Our table wasn't ready when we arrived, so we had a relaxing drink at the bar.  Right from the start service was friendly and engaging and stayed upbeat the whole night, despite the late hour.  One issue I have with eating out on Valentine's Day is that nicer restaurants tend to have fixed price dinners with limited options that taste mass-produced.  Although there was a special menu available, I didn't have to order from it.

I went all out with my meal ordering a salad, a pasta course, and main course.  Even my server was surprised I ordered all that.

Arugula and pear salad started the meal.  It's only flaw was it was too heavy on the greens.  The flavors didn't balance enough.  This seems common in many restaurant arugula salads though.  It's more economical to fill a plate with greens I guess.

Next I had bucatini amatriciana.  I love amatriciana sauce, but every time I have had it, the meat was always pancetta, or even Canadian bacon.  Traditionally it's supposed to be made with guanciale.  Well, this version had the guanciale.  The pasta was delicious and surprisingly spicy.  It was also a bigger portion than I expected. 

It would seem impossible to equal or surpass the delicious pasta, but this pork loin stuffed with cheese and speck in a Chianti sauce managed to do just that.  Even the seemingly ordinary green beans and tiny potatoes seemed just that much more special.

The server was correct in saying I  had ordered a crazy amount of food.  I was too stuffed to order dessert, but Kevin shared his white and dark chocolate mousse with caramelized bananas.
Day 6 - We went easy on breakfast back at the Shore Bird buffet.  We didn't have a real lunch either.  Kevin had been jonesing for ice cream for a few days and was determined to have some (shave ice dominates the frozen dessert scene).  I found Lappert's within the massive shopping complex at Hilton Hawaiian Village, the hotel adjacent to the Outrigger.  Again, it's a chain, but a local one.

Sorry you have to look at me in my ill-fitting swimsuit (most of my suits are ill-fitting these days).  I didn't have my own phone or camera handy and asked Kevin to shoot one of the ice cream with his phone.  He misunderstood that I just wanted a photo of the ice cream.

This is Kauai Pie.  It's coffee with fudge, coconut, and macadamia nuts.  You have to love Lapperts' use of nuts and coconut in so many of their flavors.

We had dinner at Roy's.  Roy Yamaguchi is Hawaii's answer to a celebrity chef.  I didn't realize that this was another national chain. There aren't any locations anywhere near where I live, so I had never heard of it.  I had simply been reading so much hype about it in the local media in Oahu, I felt I had to try it.  The problem with celebrity-chef-owned restaurants is they can have a great menu, but the execution often needs serious QC.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but Hawaii makes you feel optimistic.  It's funny what an effect the place has on you. 

The restaurant sits on a corner with a large outdoor patio.

They bring you edamame pods when you sit down.

I started with a delicious salad of tomatoes, shiso, goat cheese, and a spicy onion mignonette in balsamic dressing.  I liked this salad better than I liked the one at Il Lupino.  I'm not sure I have ever had shiso.  A vendor at one of my local summer farm markets sells a variety of crazy greens and shiso is always one of them.  If I haven't bought it in the past, I will be buying it in the future.

The main course was a sweet grilled chicken with Thai red curry (it was a full half chicken, but entirely boneless).  On top was creamy coconut corn.  On the bottom was sticky rice (of course) flavored with mango.  The dish had a creamy, comfort food quality about with, but with sophisticated flavor.  Well done!
I don't remember what dessert was.  I see pineapple, caramel, and some kind of pastry hiding under it all.  Kevin must have ordered it and we shared it.  Once again, I was too full for my own dessert.

Day 7 - We left Oahu and headed to Kauai this day.  I think at this stage of my vacation I was permanently full.

We arrived at our hotel, the Koa Kea in the early afternoon.  It was raining and our room wasn't ready yet, so we hung out at the bar for lunch and drinks.

My cocktail contained sparkling wine, peach vodka, and melon liqueur.  

 I tried to keep it light for lunch and went with a standard fruit and cheese platter.

We had dinner at the Koa Kea's only restaurant, Red Salt.  It's considered a really high end place in the neighborhood and we only had dinner there once.  Too pricey.  They had a $50 burger topped with foie gras and lobster.  I call that overkill.

The restaurant is named for the local red salt (obviously) and they provide a small container of it with the bread and butter.  I decided to try it.  I liked it so much I bought a container of it at the hotel gift shop before I went home.

Next I had a salad that was a Kauai Slaw made of strips of carrot, pepper, and cucumber in a sweet and sour dressing.  This was outstanding.
 The main course was a tender hunk of pork coated in a macadamia and brioche crust. 

Kevin wanted more ice cream.  The ice cream was a quartet of gelati.  Kevin really only wanted one of the flavors.  They accommodated him and brought a shareable portion.  I initially thought the square containers were cubic ice cream scoops.

Red Salt also offered their version of a root beer float made with root beer ice cream and locally made cream soda.  Kevin had been eyeballing that during our stay, but never ended up ordering it.  I had my eye on another dessert though (keep reading and you'll see what it was).

Day 8 -  We didn't rent a car on Kauai (not a good decision) so we were limited in our neighborhood food options as we had to take a bit of a walk to a small shopping center that had only a few food establishments.  There was an even bigger center about a mile and a half down the road with an even better selection, but without a car, it might as well not be there.  Since we never wanted to waste our mornings walking, we always had breakfast at Red Salt.

Our first Kauai morning I had a breakfast burrito. This thing was ridiculous.  It was pancetta hash, eggs, and gruyere in a wrap. They offered ketchup and sriracha for dipping.  I guess the salad on the side was there to make you feel less guilty.  I seriously didn't need to eat anything else the rest of the day.

Red Salt's other temptations include pineapple-lemon souffle pancakes, which I didn't try because they take 30 minutes to prepare, and macadamia nut waffles, which were a bit tough, but were improved with coconut syrup.

Even though I didn't want to eat, when the bus tour of Waimea canyon stopped at a local market this day, I bought a masalada.  These are popular Portuguese doughnuts commonly eaten in Hawaii.  I had a coconut one.  I was dying to dry one.

I was a bit disappointed.  I found the consistency to be too bread-like.  Oh well.

Our driver took us to a place on a golf course for lunch.  He seemed like the kind of guy who would know all the shacks and food trucks, but tour companies don't often contract with places like that.  

I was still stuffed from lunch.  I had a veggie wrap.

It was perfectly acceptable as veggie wraps go.  The folks who ordered fish and chips were quite happy.

I couldn't eat dinner that night.  I had just reached my eating limit.  Kevin had dinner in the bar and I ended up eating the pickles that came with his hamburger though.  I probably ate half his french fries too.  Oops.

Day 9 - After another breakfast at Red Salt, I spent my morning on an ATV jungle tour that provided a rather ordinary sandwich lunch. 

We went to Puka Dog for dinner.  Puka means hole, and that's what these hot dogs are about.  The bun isn't split, but instead is tubular and a polish sausage or a veggie dog is inserted in the middle.  It is topped with a lemon garlic sauce, your choice of fruit relish, and their special mustard.  More traditional toppings are available if you prefer.

 They put their menu on a boogie board.

I had the Polish sausage with mild lemon-garlic sauce, mango relish, and their mustard.

Kevin said he wasn't impressed with the place, but then he had a veggie dog with dijon mustard.  He might have enjoyed it more if he had been more adventurous.

It's funny what they call a "Polish Sausage" in Hawaii.  They were fairly similar to most hot dogs I eat regularly.  When someone says "Polish Sausage" to me, I think of Hilshire Farms kielbasa.

We came back to the hotel and went to the bar for a nightcap and dessert.  That dessert I had been so keen on trying: chocolate macadamia nut torte.

Day 10 - We had both our lunch and dinner on a dinner cruise to the Na'Pali Coast.  I suppose you could say it was appetizers and dinner (the crew certainly did) but the cruise went from 2PM-5PM so I considered the appetizers to be my lunch.  We started with cheese and crackers, crudites, and dips, and there was always wine, beer, and mai tais available.

For dinner they brought out the salads and either pulled pork or tuna sandwiches.  I always love my pulled pork.

 I had wine with the appetizers, but I thought a mai tai would be the best drink to end my vacation.
There was also a whale.

Went home the next day.  It was a good vacation.  Aloha.