Hawaii’s abundance of fresh seafood is always a pleasure. But in the last several years, local produce has also started to shine on restaurant menus. The archipelago’s rich volcanic soil is suited to taro and pineapples, but just about anything else will grow well. In addition to a rainbow of tropical fruits, look for buttery ali‘i mushrooms, mild Maui onions and high-quality local beef and pork. And a bevy of Hawaiian craft breweries and distilleries ensure that no one goes thirsty.
The state’s most sophisticated and stylish restaurants are mostly in and around Honolulu. Elsewhere, the food tends to be simpler and the atmosphere more casual. Restaurants in high-end resorts are, of course, often exceptions to this rule.
Located in the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, the oldest quarter of Honolulu, Fête has a small and fashionable dining room surrounded by exposed brick walls, as well as a shady sidewalk patio where we lunched. We enjoyed the people-watching — this neighborhood draws its fair share of eccentrics — but the powerfully flavorful food is the real draw. We started with a tartare of local beef with spicy mustard, capers, fried shallots and a dollop of creamy béarnaise, accompanied by addictive grilled sourdough spread with anchovy butter. Although the twice-fried half chicken is the most popular main course on the menu, I couldn’t resist the Kauai prawns. They were a joy: big and sweet, bathed in a butter-peppercorn sauce accented with crunchy coconut flakes and fried curry leaves. To help soak up the wonderfully rich sauce, I recommend a side of ginger-scallion rice. The wine list has a lengthy selection of bottles and a creative by-the-glass list. The Valenti “Ciuri di Lava,” an orange Carricante from the slope of Mount Etna, seemed most appropriate, considering the volcanic soil beneath us. Fête is an ideal lunch stop before or after a tour of nearby Iolani Palace. Closed Sunday.
2 North Hotel Street, Honolulu. Tel. (808) 369-1390
Since we were still restricting ourselves to outdoor dining, this formal French restaurant in Waikiki seemed especially appealing, since it occupies a wide indoor-outdoor space on the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton Residences. Tables along the edge of the covered terrace have views of the ocean, interrupted only by some tropical gardens. The well-trained staff knew the menu inside and out — even the young man filling our water glasses was able to make educated cocktail recommendations. I very much enjoyed the complex Atomic Blonde cocktail, based on Old Tom gin, as well as the restaurant’s riff on a mai tai, mixed with local rhum agricole, which proved fresh and not oversweet. Patrons can order three or four courses, choosing whatever they like from the menu. I started with baby Kona abalone, resembling iridescent mussels in a classic sauce of parsley butter and Pernod, accompanied by pickled ramps. My main course of dry-aged yellowtail was actually quite moist, capped with a crunchy skin. It was surrounded by a smooth sauce of sorrel cream, and citrusy wilted tatsoi (a relative of bok choy) came on the side. My dessert of gâteau Ispahan, an almond sponge cake layered with subtle lychee cream and topped with raspberry gelée, was excellent. Overall, La Vie’s combination of French recipes and local ingredients yielded delicious results. Closed Sunday and Monday.
383 Kalaimoku Street, Honolulu. Tel. (808) 729-9729
Between Waikiki and Kahala, the untouristy Kaimuki neighborhood has a small pedestrian-friendly commercial strip along Waialae Avenue. This “French-inspired” restaurant has a stylish spare interior of midcentury modern-style tables, tall wooden booths and mirrored gray walls, and it draws smartly dressed locals at least as much as visitors. The five-course tasting menu was a great value at $70, as was the wine pairing for an additional $35. Highlights included Kauai prawns with almond cream, crunchy papaya and tarragon, served with a tart Grüner Veltliner; charred local sweet peppers stuffed with vadouvan-spiked yogurt and drizzled with curry leaf oil, which brought out a darker note in my otherwise zippy Riesling; and fork-tender beef cheek with puréed sunchoke and crunchy sunflower seeds, shoots and petals, which combined beautifully with a luscious Grenache-based blend from the Languedoc. The whipped adzuki-bean cheesecake was simpler, but the pairing of 2013 Château Suduiraut Sauternes, a sublime wine redolent of honey, fresh green peppercorn and zesty orange, made up for that fact and then some. Closed Monday and Tuesday, and Sunday dinner.
3446 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu. Tel. (808) 379-0124
The three branches of Monkeypod, restaurants developed by acclaimed chef Peter Merriman, focus on local ingredients as much as possible. The Ko Olina outpost is a short walk from the Four Seasons resort, and it makes for a fun and casual change of pace. Its popular patio was full, but it flowed up to the bar, giving the whole restaurant an indoor-outdoor feel. We pulled up stools and ordered pints of “Guava Lava” by Paradise Ciders, a hard-cider company based in Oahu. This example was well-balanced, with guava aromatics, prickly bubbles and a tart, dry finish. A big salad of local organic kale, sweet raw Maui onions, mandarin oranges, golden raisins and macadamia nuts — all tossed with a sesame-miso vinaigrette — was a carefully considered combination of flavors and textures. The fresh-caught mahi-mahi tacos were just as delicious, with subtly spicy chipotle mole, bright salsa, cilantro and sour cream in corn tortillas. A guitarist added to the convivial atmosphere.
Monkeypod Ko Olina
92-1048 Olani Street, Kapolei. Tel. (808) 380-4086
One of the best restaurants on the island of Hawaii outside the resorts we recommend is this establishment in the Fairmont Orchid, easily accessible with the house car of Mauna Lani. Its romantic palm-shaded patio spills onto the beach, a musician strums a guitar and sings standards, and the view of the sunset is sensational. Our fun but professional waitress knew the menu well and made thoughtful suggestions. After a floral Polu Momi cocktail mixed with purple Empress 1908 Gin, I tried a salad of arugula topped with strawberries, local goat cheese, puffed wild rice and charred Broccolini. I would never have guessed strawberries and Broccolini could work so well together! My main course of Kona kampachi came atop coconut rice porridge and shredded cabbage, topped further by ample Dungeness crab. This restaurant makes it worth the effort to leave your resort.
Brown’s Beach House
1 North Kaniku Drive, Kohala Coast. Tel. (808) 887-7320
Friendly and casual Foster’s is a short walk from central Kailua-Kona, making it a good choice for lunch if you’re in town. We sat on its second-floor water-view (and power-line-view) terrace and shared appetizers. Best was the seared ahi tuna seasoned with “Cajun furikake,” drizzled with lilikoi (passion fruit) ponzu and black-bean shoyu, and finished with diced oranges and microgreens. The perfectly fresh tuna took on delicious spicy, savory and citrusy notes. I also liked the seafood puff pastries garnished with macadamia pesto and baked with Parmesan, but each puff came stuffed with just one small shrimp; the promised crab was nowhere in evidence. I consoled myself with housemade lilikoi cheesecake with whipped cream and strawberries.
75-5805 Ali‘i Drive, Kailua-Kona. Tel. (808) 326-1600
A 10-minute drive farther south out of town, this restaurant has a rather unpromising-looking entrance, but its terrace has wonderful views of Magic Sands Beach Park and the ocean. The food tends to be upscale versions of simple dishes, such as a Reuben sandwich embellished with coconut-braised corned beef and kimchi, and fish and chips coated in monchiko flour and served with lilikoi-spiked tartar sauce. I started with a salad special: grilled local zucchini with al dente herbed fregola (like pearl couscous), mild Maui onion, ricotta, mixed greens and basil vinaigrette. It was light and fresh, if underseasoned. Even better was my main course of pork belly with kimchi fried rice. The pork had the right ratio of fat to meat and a delectable garlic-shoyu glaze enhanced with five-spice. The rice’s spiciness was a foil to the pork’s sweetness, and a salad of cucumber and hearts of palm added a cool counterpoint. A Lilikoi Lani cocktail of local vodka, local coconut liqueur, lime, lilikoi and coconut water was a fine accompaniment: obviously tropical but not a sugar bomb.
Magics Beach Grill
77-6452 Ali‘i Drive, Kailua-Kona. Tel. (808) 662-4427
In a prominent location in downtown Kailua-Kona, right on the coast, this popular eatery has live music and fantastic ocean and sunset views. The menu is relatively unadventurous, but the food and drink are undeniably delicious. An ‘Awapuhi cocktail of ginger-infused gin with lime juice and basil, for example, felt sophisticated, with a dry and fresh flavor profile. It helped cut through some rich panko-breaded avocado slices drizzled with sweet teriyaki and savory sambal aioli, in addition to hearty coconut rice arancini stuffed with kalua pork and topped with sweet-sour guava barbecue sauce. A firm fillet of ono (wahoo) made for a lighter main course, accompanied by mixed sautéed vegetables. The simple, flavorful recipes may not earn the restaurant a Michelin star, but Papa Kona feels casual, lively and thoroughly Hawaiian.
The Waterfront Row. 75-5770 Ali‘i Drive, Kailua-Kona. Tel. (808) 300-0044