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Grounded in Hawaii, with an Eye Toward the Globe…Oahu Cultivates Big Picture Cuisine

Posted on August 23, 2012

By Joshua Lurie

We island hopped from Hawaii to Oahu to continue our exploration of international, modern cuisine, to deepen our appreciation of indigenous ingredients, and to attend the inaugural Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

We stayed at The Modern, a massive boutique hotel in Waikiki with white décor, a pair of pools, one designed to mimic the nearby beach, and a signature restaurant from Masaharu Morimoto. We checked in at a curvy counter featuring colorful surfboards, then quickly set out for culinary exploration.

A branch of Japan’s oldest department store, Shirokiya, resides in Honolulu’s massive Ala Moana Center. Downstairs touts an ocean of sweets, and upstairs, their stations included savory specialties like takoyaki, shiu mai, yakisoba, udon and tempura, plus booths devoted to individual animals. There was even an inari zushi booth with soy skin “boats” cradling lima bean, adzuki bean and green tea rices.

Longtime coffee pro Pete Licata relocated from Kansas to Paradise in 2009, and he’s taken his game to another level in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He won the 2011 United States Barista Championship and placed second at the World Barista Championship in Bogotá, Colombia. He’s now Director of Coffee Quality for Honolulu Coffee Company. We met at the company’s bustling Ala Moana Shopping Center location, and he discussed his background, unique Hawaiian coffee challenges and more.

The sheer variety of ramen alone would make Hawaii’s largest city a Japanese dining destination. Licata and local food blogging legend Reid (Ono Kine Grindz) both recommended Goma Tei, a unique ramen house on the ground floor of the Ala Moana Center. Goma Tei means “sesame seed” in English, and their specialty is Tan Tan Ramen, a pork, chicken and vegetable broth with “spicy sesame flavor,” a half-inch thick slab of pork, firm yellow egg noodles and choy sum, a kind of Chinese cabbage (pictured).

 Goma Tei Ramen

The sun still hadn’t started to rise when our bus pulled up to a dockside building and we met Assistant GM Brooks Takenaka outside the Honolulu Fish Auction. The United Fish Agency started the auction in 1952 on Pier 38 and has since increased their commitment to sustainability, which includes limiting by-catch and sticking to the seasons. Vendors sold big eye, albacore and yellowfin tuna, sorted big to small. We walked past pallets topped with large fish like mahi and monchong (aka pomfret), each tagged with a UPC code, boat name and weight.

After our tour, Takenaka joined us next door at Nico’s at Pier 38, where chef Nico Chaize celebrates the market’s best seafood. The Lyon native shops at the adjacent auction daily at 5:45 a.m., helping fuel seasonal specials. We sampled smoky fried rice studded with ham, Portuguese sausage, bacon and kamaboko (fish cake); Fish & Eggs with meaty white albacore; and moco loco with ground beef patties and onion-rich gravy. At lunch, he has more elaborate dishes like fried ahi belly and furikake pan seared ahi with ginger garlic cilantro dip. During our visit, Chaize was planning a move to another building in the facility, to accommodate more diners, dinner service and a fish market.

Some farmers are satisfied with growing produce and livestock. Gary Maunakea-Forth is not that farmer. The man who’s been known to wear a “Green Machine” T-shirt moved from New Zealand for a local girl and studied Environmental Studies and Political Science at University of Hawaii. He co-founded Ma’o Organic Farms (staff pictured) with wife Kukui in Waianae, surrounded by lush mountains. Ma’o grows organic fruits and vegetables on 24 acres, but also molds young people. That involves helping young adults go to college in exchange for a commitment to farming.

Mao Organic Farms

Our western Oahu farm tour continued at Kahumana Organic Farm & Cafe, a new age, farm to table practitioner nearby in Lualualei Valley. Kahumana supports Alternative Structures International, which provides education, job training and transitional housing to disadvantaged families; Kahumana also farms seven acres of mineral-rich volcanic soil, fueling an on-site café. Our prix fixe lunch included white beet borscht with tangy crème fraiche and chives; chard-flecked, grass-fed beef meatloaf; and a dessert sampler starring lilikoi cheesecake.

Naked Cow Dairy is the last business of its kind on Oahu, a boutique operation from longtime dairy manager Monique Van der Stroom and sister Sabrina St. Martin. They milk 20 Holstein cows to produce milk, buttermilk and “value added products” like cheese and yogurt. They’ve also developed some inventive flavors of butter that often utilize local produce, including Hawaiian salt, roasted toasted coconut, and mac nut honey.

We kicked off the inaugural Hawaii Food & Wine Festival with Streets of Asia, a global event that Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto curated, since it took place outdoors at The Modern, where he operates a signature restaurant. Justin Quek from Singapore’s Sky on 57, Seoul based chef Edward Kwon and Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Aziza were just three chefs who served food poolside. Esteemed California winemakers like Steve Clifton and Jim Clendenen complemented food by pouring wine.

We strayed from Waikiki to start the next day, delving into an industrial district for Ethel’s Grill, a tiny family-run restaurant south of Nimitz Highway that yielded “sumo size” flavor. Okinawa native Riyoko Ishii helms the kitchen, and daughter Minaka Urquidi runs the seven-table front of house. It was almost embarrassing how much fish they served as a side of Ethel’s Famous Tataki Sashimi, and the Mochiko Chicken, coated in rice flour and fried in soybean oil, proved equally addictive when dipped in ginger ponzu sauce.

Downtown Coffee owner Fred Hokada features Hawaiian coffee and even worked with U.S. Barista Champion Pete Licata on a signature blend that helped him win the title. Fumiko Hokada is Fred’s wife and a Nagoya native, and she supplies sweets like the Matcha Torte with white chocolate, matcha green tea and a bamboo charcoal shortbread crust.

Pete Licata’s recommendations also led to Beach Bum Café, a “microbrew coffee house” with 100% Hawaiian coffee from Dennis McQuoid, the aforementioned beach bum. He buys micro-lots and carries 8-10 coffees at any given time, which appear on white boards and end up as pourover, or coursing through the three-group Nuova Simonelli espresso machine, but my pick was pourover. McQuoid brewed Maragogype, the biggest coffee bean in the world, using a Central American sock pot, with a filter that looks like a windsock.

We made sure to Eat The Street by attending an organized food truck rally from Poni Askew that draws 6000 people per month to a Honolulu parking lot. The theme for September was local cuisine, and we received a number of local tastes, including Tats lilikoi (passion fruit) shaved ice, Madre chocolate Chocolate and OnoPops, an artisanal popsicle company that produces inventive flavors using local ingredients like salted watermelon and cherry clove.

For dinner, we went to Town, literally. Chef Ed Kenney runs the hyper-local restaurant with wife Kristen in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighborhood, featuring a planter-framed patio and design that evokes the Pacific Ocean and volcanic rocks. Kenney sources prized Shinsato pigs to produce salumi, signature ahi tuna tartare appeared on a crispy risotto cake, and even when they had to substitute ingredients, as they did with clams, for black mussels, the results still achieved harmony. We passed plates of hand-cut pasta with cremini mushrooms and dandelion greens, juicy pan roasted chicken and tangy buttermilk panna cotta.

The next morning, there were so many visitors and locals that Kapi’olani Community College Farmers Market felt like a farmer-filled Mardi Gras. Of course, New Orleans has nothing as scenic as Diamond Head, the famous volcanic crater that serves as the backdrop for the sea of stalls. Dean Okimoto owns ‘Nalo Farms in Waimanalo and co-founded KCC Farmers Market with food writer Joan Namkoong and Conrad Nonaka, Director for the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. He introduced us to vendors like Sweet Gold, which started growing Hawaiian Crown pineapple in 1986; Akamai Oatcakes co-founder Sharon Kobayashi also makes fresh juices, plus my refreshing key lime, starfruit and mint lassi; and Chef Hardy, who fills Mushroom Pouches with Hamakua mushroom.

As part of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, Las Vegas-based mixologist Francesco Lafranconi taught alongside vaunted New York bartender (and Hawaii native) Julie Reiner at the Farm to Glass Mixology Seminar above the Lewers Lounge in Waikiki’s grand Halekulani Hotel. Reiner started us with a Southside Fizz, a shaken Champagne cocktail with gin, citrus, cucumber and mint that she described as “the drink for gin haters,” and they concluded with a cocktail challenge that saw Reiner and a guest fro the audience, Holly, defeating Lafranconi and his assistant Terry, “Iron Chef”-style, with the help from a classic drink, Ginger Rogers.

Lunch was nearby at Matsugen, a branch of a famous Japanese soba shop that makes buckwheat noodles in house and prepares them in a number of hot and cold permutations. My pick was Kamo Seiro, cold soba served on a bamboo mat alongside a bowl of hot, umami-rich duck soup.

On our walk back to the hotel, it was strange to see a guy with a sandwich board outside Dior and Louis Vuitton with sandwich board advertising Hawaii Gun Club and the chance to fire an AK-47.

Organizers of the inaugural Hawaii Food & Wine Festival dubbed their grand finale From Mauka to Makai and held the mega tasting on the great lawn of the Hilton Hawaiian Village as the sun set over the Pacific, combining spectacular views with dramatic bites. Hawaii Food & Wine attracted some of the best chefs from Hawaii and the mainland, including John Besh, Rick Moonen, Dean Fearing, and Alan Wong, who all showcased local ingredients on eco-friendly plates. Christian Self, formerly the head bartender at The Modern Honolulu, shared a central bar with three other cocktail talents, including the aforementioned Francesco Lafranconi and bartender Julie Reiner. From Mauka to Makai started with dazzling views of the pink sunset and finished with fireworks, visible through the palms. This punctuated a memorable three-day fest.

On our second to last day on Oahu, a run up the hillside from Waikiki quickly transitioned from Honolulu’s urban core to a green wonderland with no sidewalks, mist shrouded hilltops, fallen starfruit and Morning Glass Coffee + Café, a breezy open air establishment that longtime Starbucks exec Eric Rose opened in residential Mānoa Valley. They brew Stumptown and local coffee and bake ginger molasses cookies, blackberry scones, condensed milk pound cake and my pick, gooey coffee cake, which tasted great, but wasn’t exactly runner-friendly. 

We took a brief break from consumption to take a lesson from native Peruvian Javier and his Hawaiian partner at Hans Hedemann Surf Adventures, which resulted in tired shoulders, scuffed knees, and sunburned legs, but some memorable rides and views of Diamond Head.

We were hungry again and walked in flip-flops to Leonard’s Bakery, one of Honolulu’s essential eating stops, for Portuguese influenced malasadas. The original malasada was warm, sugar dusted, egg rich and almost custardy inside. We also ordered a version with oozing guava cream.

Unfortunately, all good trips have to come to an end, and our final dinner took place at Chef Mavro, which George Mavrothalassitis opened two decades ago. The dining room offers natural light, white tablecloths and vases filled with bright red flowers, Hawaiian ginger. We were at the restaurant to enjoy a seven-course menu that Chef Mavro created to honor the 20th Anniversary of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Our meal included ruby red Ahi Tartare and briny Osetra sturgeon caviar and taro chips, Keahole lobster risotto with white asparagus, salt-baked dayboat snapper, served tableside, and lilikoi malasadas, apparently a deal breaker in Mavro’s marriage, should he ever remove the dessert from the menu.

My final day on Oahu began on the bus with moist Diamond Head Market scones, banana and blueberry. We started our North Shore farm tour at Helemano Plantation, which was kind of like a pineapple theme park. Derek Lanter, manager of Waialua Estate, led us through an Arabica coffee grove, which Dole tends to with a mechanical blueberry picker that sports fiberglass hands.

We continued down the road, where 30 different varietals of Waialua cacao grow year-round in an arid, windswept area near a river, which provides necessary humidity. They bag dry pods and ship them to Guittard in San Francisco for exclusive production. Gary Guittard also sells cacao under his name. In Lanter’s office, we tasted a bar of Waialua Estate extra dark chocolate made using 70% cacao.

 Our North Shore farm tour culminated with a trip to Marine AgriFuture, which is where Dr. Wenhao Sun farms sea asparagus in salt water beds, with towering turbine blades as a backdrop to the bucolic setting. Sea asparagus (aka sea beans, aka salicornia) is a vegetable with tips popular in places like Korea and Baja California. It’s full of Vitamin A, Vitamin B9 and folic acid, plus ocean minerals that are unavailable in land vegetables.

It was a busy morning, so by the time we arrived at Turtle Bay Resort, we were ready to devour local produce, seafood and meat at Ola, a five-year-old, family-run restaurant from Ft. Lauderdale-born chef-owner Fred DeAngelo and his wife Cheryl opened Ola in December 2005. Our table overlooked a cove and quickly gained plates of Kalua pig nachos, lomi salmon salad, chuck sliders and ono fillet sprinkled with umami-rich porcini dust.

The North Shore of Oahu is probably best known for death defying, big wave surfing, followed by beaches, farms and Ted’s Bakery chocolate haupia pie. The soft crust hosted layers of chocolate pudding, firm jello/pudding-like coconut haupia and whipped cream that looked like choppy sea, fitting given the notorious North Shore waves.

We concluded consumption at Jimbo, a humble shop that Motojima opened in the mid ’90s in a strip mall across from Chef Mavro. They specialize in house-made udon, springy fat wheat noodles, and serve it in 39 hot and cold, soup and dry variations, plus specials. My choice featured “Tempura” in hot fish based broth with kakiage, chopped vege (green bean & strands of carrot) & shrimp, served with fish stock based tempura dipping sauce.

We returned to the mainland enamored with Hawaii’s native produce and cuisine, mesmerized by the local seafood, and eager to explore more.

Find more of Joshua Lurie’s writing and photography on his website, Food GPS (www.foodgps.com).

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