Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Aloha Oahu

View from our room at the Marriott Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa
Everyone we met referred to Waikiki as the L.A. of Hawaii, but that hardly does it any justice.  As a New Yorker, the pristine strip along the beach certainly has elements of Fifth Avenue with its designer stores, and Times Square with the International Marketplace and its 130+ carts, stands, and artisan shops.  One of the main differences is that prices actually are pretty reasonable--I had a difficult time justifying haggling down the price on a $3 bracelet I liked.  Another difference is that everyone is beautiful... whether it's the beauty of native islander's mocha skin, the muscle definition that results from surfing rather than spending an afternoon in a New York Sports Club, or the beauty of genuine hospitality you'd only expect to find in the Midwest or South mainland USA.  While Honolulu and Waikiki may not even scratch the surface of what it is to truly visit Hawaii and its lush islands, they offer a lovely transition and introduction to the Aloha spirit.  And for night owls visiting from the mainland, this is your last chance to enjoy a city that never sleeps.  Because beyond this bustling pedestrian plaza, most Hawaiian cities do go to sleep, and fairly early.

Chef Chai's Signature Combination Appetizer Platter
While Chef Chai Chaowasaree's plates on Hawaiian Airlines made for exceptional mile high meals, there is no denying a kitchen on the ground blows any strato-kitchen to smithereens.  With his heritage in thai cuisine and the vibrant flavors of the Pacific Rim blended with the fresh offerings of the Hawaiian Islands, Chai's Island Bistro should be the first stop for any traveler to Oahu.

Nestled into the plazas at Aloha tower, the main dining room is grandiose, regal, and Asian, with gigantic lanterns, statues, and curtains of shimmering stones partitioning the open kitchen.  While the menu offers several tasting options, you can easily build a delicious meal on your own.  The appetizer sampler reads like a 101 course in island eating: shot glasses of velvety butternut squash and lobster bisque, a tobiko-studded salmon roulade stuffed with crabmeat and cream cheese on a cucumber pedestal, jumbo black tiger prawns robed in crispy shreds of kataifi and macadamia nuts drizzled with pineapple vinaigrette, and sweet Alaskan king crab cakes with tomato mango salsa and roasted garlic aioli.  Washed down with a "Chai Tai" or melon martini, it's practically a meal in and of itself.

For main courses, we enjoyed local monchong, a mild, steaky fish blanketed in lobster cream sauce over a bed of butternut squash and zucchini linguini.  And while we were certainly eager to indulge in the island's seafood, who could resist this "Deconstructed Beef Tenderloin Wellington," a grilled 9 oz. filet mignon medallion over mashed island taro, glistening in a merlot demiglace, and capped with a mushroom foie gras truffle puff.  It was every bit as delicious and sinful as it sounds, and truly one of the most spectacular steak presentations I have enjoyed in a very long time.

Desserts ranged from a creme brulee sampler (chocolate with Tahitian vanilla beans, Chai's tea, and Thai coffee) to this decadent vintage chocolate mousse pyramid.  But the real treat was Chef Chai, himself, joining us as our meal drew to a close.  A local celebrity and television host, he graciously posed for photographs with patrons, and then joined us for some wonderful conversation, discussing the new culinary trends in New York City, the differences between dining in the Big Apple and on the islands, and sharing with us his personal journey as a chef.  The kind of guy you want to hug, I did just that before leaving.  Part of what I love most about my job is meeting the people behind the food.  When they turn out to be as generous in spirit and hospitality as Chef Chai, it makes what was already a delicious meal just that much more memorable.

Chai's Island Bistro on Urbanspoon

For the next day, we knew we had previously struck gold at Chai's, and should probably go the more casual route.  Taking the recommendation of a local we'd met at the International Market, we drove slightly off the beaten path to the base of Diamond Head--our destination, Rainbow Drive-In.  Visiting this fifty year old snack shack is like traveling back in time.  I kept backwards glancing over my shoulder, half expecting Elvis to roll up on skates.  And if the clientele of construction workers and police officers were any indication, this place is the real deal.

Plate lunches range from $6 to $8 and include an entree, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad or slaw.  Of course I had to try my first loco moco... two scoops of rice with a grilled hamburger patty, brown gravy, and a fried egg.  And a side of spam, of course!  It's almost like the official state meat (they even serve spam breakfasts at the McDonald's here... and no, I did not try McSpam.) While loco moco is anything but light, it certainly is delicious, best described as a salisbury steak benedict... and best enjoyed with one of Rainbow Drive-In's giant plastic cups of fountain fruit punch, the kind that leaves a red mustache for the rest of the day.  Simple pleasures are some of the very best, and it's easy to see why this no frills joint has maintained popularity with the locals.

Rainbow Drive-in on Urbanspoon

Though we stopped briefly for snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, much of the area was closed off due to dangerous conditions, and so we soon continued on to our next resort, the Ihilani JW Marriott Resort & Spa.  Though I am a fan of beautiful properties, my family philosophy growing up was that hotels are simply where you sleep... and that we should always explore beyond what seems to be a wonderful pool or extravagant sun deck.  This JW Marriott is absolutely an exception to that rule, a destination in and of itself.  As you can see above the view from my bedroom (where we were met with a gift platter of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, glazed pineapple scones, and fresh loaves of banana bread), the resort sits on a private lagoon of crystal clear water, complete with its own snorkeling reefs.

Weary from travel, we decided to park ourselves at the resort, swimming the afternoon away in the lagoon, and sipping banana kahlua coladas from hollowed pineapples, nibbling ahi poke (a popular Hawaiian soy-sesame sashimi salad) with chopsticks from the hotel's outdoor bar.  

At sunset, we walked a short distance down the beach to these breathtaking tide pools in black volcanic rock.  Tiny crab fed on small fish trapped in the pools, as waves perpetually splashed new treasures into the bowls.  The waves ceased just long enough to allow the waters to momentarily still, permitting me to capture this reflective image above.  It's just one of the many small miracles we witnessed on these tranquil, majestic islands.  And it was just the rejuvenation we needed before heading to the airport for Kauai the next day--an island that would demand all of our energy, and a portion of the trip that I will surely never forget.

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Remember:  Urbanspoon (partnered with Hawaiian Airlines and Marriott) is going to give away a trip for two to Hawaii with meals at some of the restaurants I visited, including Chai's Island Bistro.  All you have to do is make a restaurant reservation in NYC! Click here for more details.

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