Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wow-wee Maui

The clouds actually spill over the north side of Maui at sunset, as if wrapping it in a blanket for the night.
If I had a dollar for every time I broke the third commandment in Hawaii, it could have probably paid for a few extra nights of accommodations.  As if channelling Elle Woods, the only words I could often find to describe my reactions were "Oh My Gawd" or some variation there-of, sometimes speckled with expletives (random thought... is texting OMG using the Lord's name in vain???)  It's as if the majestic landscape renders you momentarily unintelligent, void of sufficient adjectives to articulate what you are witnessing.  And Maui was certainly no exception.  Formed by two shield volcanoes that overlapped enough to form one island (a volcanic doublet) over millions of years, Maui is one of the few islands where you can see other parts of it wrapped around the distant horizon, as well as two other nearby islands just across the ocean.  The result is as if gazing upon painted scenery, and if you concentrate long enough, all concept of distance blurs and you imagine you could swim between the islands.

From our balcony at the gorgeous Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, we could not only see the northern part of the island off to the right, but also the island of Lanai (from our lanai!) straight ahead, as well as the unpopulated island of Kahoolawe far off to the left.  This black sand beach (above) was just footsteps from our patio, and we watched the sun set behind Lanai our first evening, the reflection glowing golden on the volcanic sands.  Of course just a short walk to the left or right, and there were white sand beaches where sunbathers would rotisserie during the day, or even swim and snorkel in the ocean with enormous sea turtles.

After having driven the full length of Kauai what seemed like several times the day before (we were in the car for nearly a total of seven hours in just one day), we determined that Maui would be our R&R island.  After all, it was home of the meal we had most eagerly anticipated; not to mention that our aspirations for the Big Island coming up would demand our full strength.

A ten minute drive from Wailea, downtown Kihei holds several clusters of small restaurants and shops in a fairly concentrated area, ideal for one-stop shopping.  So for lunch, I took a recommendation to check out a local favorite, Da Kitchen, a casual little restaurant serving "plate lunches" with large portions of Hawaiian cuisine at very reasonable prices.  As always, it's a great indicator of authenticity when you pull up and the restaurant is full of construction workers in neon orange vests, and local families arriving in pick-up trucks.  If overwhelmed by the huge menu, the Hawaiian Plate is a perfect choice--a sort of sampler with lau lau pork (steamed pork wrapped in taro leaves), kalua pork (slow-cooked and shredded and wonderfully salty), chicken long rice (almost like chicken and vermicelli in a richly flavored savory broth), lomo salmon (think pico de gallo with bits of salmon), a scoop of rice, and a side of potato mac (that's potato macaroni salad... combining two picnic classics), and of course, a can of POG.  I tasted small portions of the extremely generous heapings, not wanting to spoil the upcoming dinner.

Da Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Stopping at a gift shop on the way home, of course the basket of strange candy bars on the counter caught my eye.  Despite my affinity for food and my occasional sweet tooth, you will rarely see me eating candy.  I take in enough calories writing about meals that excessive snacks aren't justifiable.  But when the wrapper indicates it's a special candy bar made nearby, and the fillings range from potato chip, to chewy banana and macadamia nut, to caramel and kona coffee milk chocolate bars, you at least have to try one.  And let me tell you, if you see these guys on a counter, snatch them up.  They are absolutely delicious, real chocolate made from local ingredients, with fun fillings...  What I intended to be a gift for friends in NYC ended up being consumed over the course of the next four days and as mid-flight snacks.

Wow-Wee Maui Kava Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

By the afternoon, full blown fatigue had officially reigned victorious, and I slowed the throttle on my zeal for exploration, retreating to the infinity pool.  What you see in the above photo is my view at eye level when I woke up leaning on the edge of the pool overlooking the ocean, lapping up water like a dehydrated puppy.  I have no idea how long this had been happening before coming to (my friend had been sleeping on a sun chair on the pool deck the whole time), but judging from the giggles around me I had probably been asleep at least long enough for an REM cycle or two, some sleep talking, and perhaps a thunderous snore or two... my shoulders slightly tender under the sun.  Embarrassed, but fully refreshed and relaxed, it was time to prepare for dinner.

If you do nothing else on Maui, you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  If you have no other meal in Hawaii, you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  If you love seafood, have ever dreamt of dinner on the beach, value impeccable service, crave top cuisine in a more comfortable atmosphere, and want a meal you will remember for the rest of your life... you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  While I wish we had enjoyed more time to explore the mysteries of Maui the way that we did Kauai, this dinner alone was reason that I will someday fly back to this very island, in the hopes of sharing this incredibly special restaurant with dear people in my life.

 After descending a tiki-lit pathway down a hill, this converted beach house sits on a white sand beach in a secluded coconut grove.  Passing through an open air lobby with a multi-colored blown glass chandelier, the dining room unfolds in retro Hawaiian decor, tables generously spaced apart, with dramatic lighting from burlap-lined bushel basket lamp shades creating the illusion that your table is the only one for miles around.  Signature drinks include vintage cocktails, like the 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai.  And while many restaurants claim the farm-to-table philosophy, the menu at Mama's lists the actual names of the fisherman who caught the fish on that day's menu, different names by each dish.

Amuse bouche: an earthenware shot glass of Haiku tomato ginger bisque
Service was flawless--knowledgeable, attentive, but never overbearing, and refreshingly relaxed without being too familiar.  Beginning with the whole wheat honey poppyseed bread and an amuse bouche of a silky, sweet Haiku tomato ginger bisque (recipe available here), every dish that arrived was exceedingly delicious and memorable.  When the bisque arrived, our server explained the gorgeous fresh flower on our table was known as red ginger, encouraging us to gently squeeze it to release its aroma.  Like inhaling the bouquet of a wine before sipping, the fresh scent of spicy ginger in the air only made the bisque that much more pleasurable.

Buttery tenderloin medallions in a grilled, ripe Hana papaya should not be missed, the char caramelizing the sweet fruit even more, rendering the pulp juicy and tender, almost spreadable on the medallions of steak.  A Tahitian ceviche of ono marinated in lime and coconut milk arrived in a coconut shell, with a trellis of fresh coconut spears like a tipi over the tender, buttery sashimi.

Though chilled soups have never been my preference, this chilled mango and Tahitian lime soup blows my mind, launching my tastebuds on a fantastic and unfamiliar roller coaster ride (a trait I cherish in a dish) like a bowl of sweet, tart, herbed mango sorbet that has just barely melted to liquid, yet thick enough to make a satisfying dish all by itself.  Even Mama's salad with hearts of palm, dried cranberries, goat cheese, and bacon exploded with flavor.

At the precise moment any diner's taste buds would have been teetering on the precipice of confusion, small dollops of passion fruit-coconut water sorbet arrive to cleanse the palate for the main courses.

Choosing each course is somewhat agonizing, as not a single menu description lacks in appeal.  I simply looked at our server for each course and said, "this is our first visit, and we may never have the chance to eat here again... please tell me the one dish I simply have to try."  For a broad sample of the fresh catch, we enjoyed a trio of ahi, ono, and mahimahi sauteed in panang curry and coconut milk with a tangy mango chutney.  Each small filet contributed a unique texture and flavor to the mild spices, creamy sauce, and vibrant chutney.  But the one dish I will never, ever forget, is the signature mahimahi caught along the north shore of Maui by Amando Baula (recipe available here).  Juicy filets of mahimahi are stuffed with sweet lobster and crabmeat, then crusted in crushed macadamia nuts which give a glorious crunch before biting into the tender seafood.  A pineapple beurre blanc blankets the dish, lending exotic sweetness and butter to what is already an exquisite preparation (our server generously brought a boat of extra on the side, which I generously ladled over everything on the plate).  Topped with a lobster tail and spears of baby asparagus and served with sweet white corn on the cob, this is that one Hawaiian dish of which you thought you could only dream, as you sigh, smile, and savor each bite, not wanting to share, but knowing that your dinner companion simply has to experience this treasure, as you relinquish the smallest forkful you can muster, praying he won't ask for a second bite!

Now when people you meet at the hotel, in the airport, or at the beach find out you will be dining at Mama's, and afterwards when friends at home inquire about your trip, almost everyone will ask if you tried the Polynesian Black Pearl--their signature dessert--a passionfruit chocolate mousse served in a pastry seashell.  Preparing for our dinner, it is the only dish virtually everyone said we had to try.  So when our server rather passionately steered us another direction, it was a dilemma.  As she had guided us flawlessly in every other way, it felt rude not to trust her at the finale.  And I am so glad that we chose to trust her, because this Kuau chocolate pie was a memory in and of itself.  As your fork cuts down into a gooey (yet not overpoweringly rich) chocolate ganache, buttery caramel pours out the sides down the chocolate cookie crust.  You then stab a raspberry or blueberry and swirl it through the sauce, before stabbing the chocolate for the perfect bite.  Our server brought out a scoop of homemade Bailey's ice cream to help balance the flavors, and it was a profoundly delicious combination.

Vacation dinner in my family always ends with a slice of key lime pie, so when our server gave us the thumbs up on the Tahitian Lime pie with coconut lime sorbet, we had to jump in.  Topped with a toasted coconut dusted chocolate palm tree on a beach of cookie crumbles and crunchy chocolate pearls, it was perfectly tart and playful--a great balance to its more decadent chocolate caramel counterpart.  And after a stemmed mug of Bora Bora coffee with dark rum and a scraping of fresh vanilla bean, an evening dip in the jacuzzi and a light swim in the pool was the only thing left to cap off the evening.

Our check was presented with two pieces of homemade haupia, like a small mignardises of coconut panna cotta--as well as a warm hand towel soaked in almond extract, which left our hands almost bafflingly smooth and moisturized.  

The price range is admittedly a little higher than many other Hawaiian restaurants (though certainly nothing shocking by New York standards), but the check you pay at the end has less to do with the plates you ordered than the entire memory that was created.  From atmosphere and decor, to service, exceptional and exotic cuisine, to complimentary valet parking, I cannot imagine a better dollar spent on a holiday.

Mama's Fish House on Urbanspoon

And considering Urbanspoon had sponsored this as one of the meals provided with the trip, it was one of the moments in Hawaii where I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity I had been given.  Couples and families save months and years for a trip like this, and I here I sat with one of my dearest friends enjoying the meal of a lifetime courtesy of my favorite dining website and smartphone app, a premier airline, and one of the most trusted and respected hotel brands in the world.  And all because I started a humble blog about something I love, and have been blessed with a miraculous support system of people who believe in me in ways I never could have asked, and voted to win me this experience.  I pinched myself all the way back to the hotel.  And then I slept like a baby under crisp, fresh hotel sheets, my curling my toes in brand new white socks, with the air conditioning on high, my head on a mountain of soft pillows, facing the outline of the distant islands in the moonlight just across a silver ocean.  Life is way better than good.

* * * * *

And remember, you too can enjoy Mama's Fish House on Maui courtesy of Urbanspoon, with flights generously provided by Hawaiian Airlines and gorgeous accommodations by Marriott just like I did.  All you have to do is click here to learn how (it's easy--you just make a reservation on Urbanspoon for a chance to win your own trip!)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

It's so hard to say goodbye to Kauai

Waimea Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific"
Aptly referred to as the Garden Isle, Kauai makes New Jersey's moniker as the "Garden State" seem almost laughable.  The oldest of the main Hawaiian islands, it is home to the exotic Na Pali coast, the setting of much of the filming of Jurassic Park and South Pacific, as well as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific".  If limited in time on Kauai, the best investment I could recommend would be renting a car, tuning the dial to one of the local independent music stations (I am still searching much of what I heard on iTunes), and simply driving.  This island is completely laid back...  there was often a 15 second gap between songs on the radio, and I had to use an 80s-style arcade skeeball token to exit the gate at the car rental place, where after realizing there were no economy cars left, my attendant grinned and said, "awww... just pick whichever one you want."  So we pulled out in a full-size SUV at no extra charge.  Every corner turned holds a new breath-stealing scene, and it will only take a few miles to fall in love and see why so many who visit choose never to return home.

But be ye forewarned, this island paradise is marked by one slightly unnerving surprise to one ornithophobe such as myself (imagine a much younger Bradley building a sand castle in Florida while unbeknownst to him being dusted with bread crumbs by a tormented sibling--a retribution which I admittedly deserved--rendering me a seagull smorgasbord, henceforth scarring me for life)... and that surprise is that the entire island is run by wild roosters.  Yes, run by them.  I half imagined them separating into Sharks and Jets, engaged in a dance-off for corners of the parking lot.  My first encounter was at the car rental desk at Lihue Airport, when a technicolor cock went strutting behind the counter.  Unmiffed, the attendant explained that it was quite common, and that my rental car was in a portion of the lot many of the roosters call home.  If you, too, fear feathered foes, allow extra time for fowl confrontations.

Much to the amusement of my friend, Matt, there were several times where I was trapped in the car waiting for ravenous birds to move away, realizing I did not come bearing snacks as so many visitors apparently do.

The flight itself to Kauai is shorter than a subway ride from Queens to Coney Island, and if you must choose between a helicopter tour of one island and a flight to visit a different island, absolutely choose the latter (several low fares are available if you check for specials).  The Hawaiian Airlines team somehow finds a way to serve local snacks and a glass of that addictive POG (Passion-Orange-Guava) during the seeming five minutes the plane is neither ascending or landing.  And you simply must see more than just one island.

Gazing jaw-dropped out the window makes the cost of an inter-island flight worth the ticket alone.  I doubt any helicopter ride could have made me gasp in awe nearly as much as this surreal view from my window seat flying between islands.  I'll keep saying it... if you've already traveled out to see at least one island, you should definitely try to visit as many as you can... it's mind-boggling how unique they each are.

Any food-lover visiting Kauai should plan an off-the-beaten-path detour to Hamura's Saimin, a tiny little noodle shop tucked behind a Salvation Army.  No, literally when I called and asked the address for my GPS, the woman on the other end paused, and said, "I'm not sure... but we are behind the Salvation Army."

Saimin is a noodle soup dish unique to Hawaii, a sort of island wuzzle of Japanese udon, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit.  It includes a thin wheat egg noodle in dashi, garnished with a myriad of toppings, inluding, you guessed it... diced Spam.  The "special saimin" at Hamura's is also loaded with homemade dumplings, fish cakes, diced green onions, and hard-boiled eggs, among other goodies.  The menu is displayed on a concession-stand style push board over the kitchen window, with other dishes of note including wontons and the delicious chicken yakitori skewers we devoured.  The counter is like a never ending zigzag weaving through the brightly lit room, with families of locals squatting practically back-to-back on low stools eagerly slurping noodles.  This isn't fine dining... it's just good ol' fashioned yummy soul food.

And no matter how full you think you are, order a slice of the lilikoi chiffon pie, like a delicate, fluffy mountain cloud of passionfruit with a dollop of whipped cream on a flaky pastry crust.  Packed the entire time we were there, the whole communal-style restaurant has the nostalgic charm of a sixties school cafeteria, with a group of middle-aged women giggling in the kitchen, lovingly ladling endless bowls of noodles.  And for one of my favorite dining experiences in Hawaii, everything came to just about $10 per person.

Hamura Saimin on Urbanspoon

The Kauai Marriott Resort is a destination all on its own, as well, situated on 800 acres facing Kalapaki Bay in Lihue.  Hawaiian architects seem to be experts at concealing, because the entryway indicates not even the slightest hint of the spectacular hotel beyond the front doors (a theme we noticed all over the islands).  After descending a grand escalator from the front lobby, you travel through what seems like an endless lush garden of waterfalls and koi ponds to the front desk area, which gloriously opens to sunlit vaulted ceilings like a grand museum of Hawaiian sculptures, paintings, and giant wood-carved canoes.  Beyond that sits one of the largest pools in the State of Hawaii, with a palm tree island at its center, and several "petals" of the pool, each complete with their own jacuzzi under grand roman pillars.  At night-time, the dramatically lit effect is that of a giant Gatsby pool party, with stone statues spewing fountains into the glowing water.

This is actually just a small puddle about a foot in diameter.  I held the camera low, creating the effect of a desert pond.  The red clay is actually oxidized, iron-rich, volcanic rock.  Definitely don't wear new white shoes if you go hiking.
Though the resort tempted us to stay and sunbathe and sip cocktails at the pool and pristine private beach, Kauai is far too beautiful not to explore.  We left the hotel at around 7 a.m. to head toward Waimea Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" (see the photo at the heading of this post).  The canyon road to the summit seems hopelessly endless... at the end of one hill, a slight dip leads directly to another, as you perpetually ascend this Pacific Mt. Olympus.  And as you glance off the side of the road, trees, waterfalls, and birds grow infinitesimally smaller below.  But the drive is one of the most scenic I have ever taken, and an absolute must for any visitor.  I cannot fathom visiting Kauai and not driving it again.  We pulled off several times for some off-road hiking, which is where we took the photo above.

For scale perspective (and because I get a wee bit queasy at heights) I stayed back to snap this image of my friend, Matt, who bravely trekked way off the beaten path.  In this image, he's belting out the Crossroads anthem (don't act like you don't know the movie), "I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman" as the whole scene looked a little bit like the Britney Spears video.  But in all seriousness, Waimea Canyon is a majestic site that made a profound impression on us both.  Had we much more time, I could have spent the whole morning sitting in the crisp, thin air, staring at the sunlight poking streams through the clouds into the green canyons.

For lunch, we decided to stay close to the hotel, and try out a favorite recommended to us by a local at the airport, Duke's Barefoot Bar.  Named in honor of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the famous Olympic swimmer and "Father of International Surfing," the open air patio and indoor gardens overlooking the beach make an ideal setting for an oceanfront lunch.  The crab and macadamia nut wontons are exceptional, especially dipped in the tangy plum mustard sauce.  While I was torn on a main dish (there's a Hawaiian pizza with Thai chili sauce and Kalua pork), I decided to take the initial recommendation our new friend had suggested, and went for a burger.  But not just any burger... one with an island twist.  The Mango BBQ Bacon Burger is crazy tasty, with a sweet mango BBQ glaze, cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and grilled onions on a patty of local grass fed beef.  I could have easily devoured more than one, but saving room for a large dinner later on, this lunch was the perfect satisfaction for a midday craving.  And the name lived up to itself, as customers left their slippers (not flipflops... slippers) at the door.

Duke's Kauai on Urbanspoon

Matt enjoying some water time at the pristine Tunnels Beach near Hanalei, where South Pacific was filmed.
After lunch, we drove along the north side of the island.  Several excursions are available to see the Na Pali Coast by water or air, but we didn't have the time... but definitely wanted to see as much as we could.  We kept pinching ourselves at the Garden of Eden landscape, half expecting a pterodactyl to fly across the sky, or a velociraptor to scramble across the roadway.

Why did this view make me somehow want to watch The Goonies?
The drive along the coast is incomparably gorgeous, passing through forests, over cliffs, past a lighthouse, and through one-lane bridges (a sign informed us that island courtesy is to allow five cars to pass before proceeding across the bridge... could you imagine that in Manhattan!?!), the whole while turquoise-blue-aqua water glistens like an ocean of opals to the right of you.

There are even hidden caverns carved into the mountains on the north side of the island.  Not dressed for spelunking, we cautiously ventured in as far as we could.  I took this shot from deep inside the cavern.  That's a full-size SUV parked on the street, for reference.  And the passengers that accompany that SUV disappeared much further into the darkness...

After cleaning up for dinner, we discovered that another unique natural site was located just a few minutes down the road from our restaurant destination, so before heading to Beach House in Koloa, we took a slight detour to visit Spouting Horn.  Crashing waves push water upwards through holes in the lava rock as high as fifty feet, creating rainbows in the mist just before sunset.  A nearby blowhole that shoots only air creates a mighty hissing sound as the water sprays, creating an even more dramatic effect.  It's hypnotic, and you find yourself watching much longer than should probabkly be captivating,

Seared Island Fresh Ahi Poke in crispy lumpia bowl with Asian slaw, wasabi mirin aioli, and tobiko...

Eagerly arriving at dinner, it became quite evident that Beach House is the optimal viewing spot for the sunset.  A tip: do not argue with the hostess or try to pay her off for an actual window table.  In this open air restaurant, they have thoughtfully terraced the levels, so no matter where you are sitting, there is an unobstructed view of the sunset and waterfront.  I watched as the host staff extremely professionally handled a smackably rude guest barking that his wife had traveled to Hawaii just to sit at a window table at the Beach House at sunset (yet he had miraculously neglected to make a reservation for his soul mate's midlife sojourn to mecca!)  We happily dined on one of the inner and upper levels, and it was perfect.  The restaurant could have easily been named Honeymoon Hut, or even Noah's Ark, as most guests seem to arrive by twos.

For starters, the wasabi-kissed ahi poke is delicious, especially served in the lumpia bowl, from which you can tear away little wafers of spring roll wrapper to pinch bits of seared tuna with the crunchy Asian slaw.  The ceviche, beautifully presented in a coconut, is one of the most delicious preparations I have enjoyed anywhere, with tiger prawns, scallops, and fish marinated in citrus and passion fruit with crisp cucumber medallions and juicy cubes of tomato and creamy avocado.  And while your mother may have always warned you not to fill up on the bread, the ciabatta is especially addictive, served warm and prepared with red alaea sea salt, a Hawaiian salt said to contain over 80 minerals, turned red from actual bits of volcanic clay.  Also kissed with sea salt is the delicious beet salad, with gorgonzola crumbles, macadamia nuts, and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Though we enjoyed the wasabi crusted opakapaka "lobster of the sea" with lilikoi lemongrass beurre blanc, the trophy goes to the miso marinated monchong with richly layered flavors from shitake mushrooms to daikon, cilantro, ong choi, and delicate fish fume.  The subtle Asian flavors deliciously accented this meaty fish, and it was a beautiful presentation.

The molten chocolate cake with espresso creme anglaise was as gooey and decadent as any I've enjoyed, but the dessert that sent our heads swimming was the bananas foster, which arrives on a flaky puff pastry in caramel sauce with macadamia nuts and vanilla bean ice cream.

Truly a special meal on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, the service was exceptional but never overbearing.  I have rarely seen such teamwork from a staff, which was refreshing.  As a guest, it is usually obvious which head server, busser, and food runner fall into which teams and sections throughout the dining room.  At Beach House, the staff appears to treat the whole floor as one section, ensuring each guest is taken care of regardless of placement on a floor plan.  All of that, with the setting, and brightly colored contemporary oil paintings decorating the walls, it's easy to see why guests flock to this restaurant.  And then we flocked straight back to the hotel to decompress in the jacuzzi under the starlight, making a perfect Hawaii evening.

Beach House on Urbanspoon

The next morning, with little time before our flight to Maui, of course we made one final road trip to try the highly-acclaimed Puka Dog. That's "pooh-kah" as opposed to the alternative tragic mispronunciation.  Set in yet another concealed shopping center called Poipu Village, this little hot dog hut had a line winding into the courtyard.  My friend laughed, and said, "so we've found the Hawaiian Shake Shack," referencing the Danny Myer phenomenon in NYC that always has a line down the street.  Maybe we'd be frazzled running to our flight, but this would surely be worth it.

As puka is island for "hole," they take a squishy fresh bun, and then spear it over a heated prong sticking up from the stovetop, which not only pokes a hole, but then toasts the inside of the bun to crispy deliciousness.  The inside is then slathered with a secret garlic lemon sauce (available in degrees of mild to crazy spicy), as well as your choice of fruit relish.  I went with mango, but patrons choose from banana, starfruit (which is seasonal, and was not available), papaya, coconut, or pineapple relish, as well as sweet or tangy mustards available in passionfruit or guava.  After gooped up with goodies, they then stuff a polish sausage, and presto, you a Hawaiian Puka Dog.

When you can take an All-American comfort food and creatively transform it to juxtapose sweet, savory, spicy, tart, fluffy, and crunchy... all for the price of a roundtrip subway fare in NYC... well, then you've won me over.  Add this fantastic frankfurter to one of their chilled plastic cups of state fair fresh squeezed lemonade, and it was the perfect little pat on the back from Kauai as we departed an island that will forever remain one of my favorite places on earth.

Puka Dog (Poipu Shopping Village) on Urbanspoon

We did all of this in about 36 hours!  And remember, you can enjoy Beach House on Kauai courtesy of Urbanspoon, with flights generously provided by Hawaiian Airlines and gorgeous accommodations by Marriott just like I did.  All you have to do is click here to learn how (it's easy--you just make a reservation on Urbanspoon for a chance to win your own trip!)

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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