To start a meal with a salad at chef Ed Kenney’s Town restaurant on Oahu is no mundane graze before the good stuff arrives. The arugula is earthy, perfectly peppery. The cilantro pops. The citrus is bold. Food tastes more intense—better—in Hawaii, and it’s not because the warm breeze on your bare arms is making you island-drunk.
It’s the sun, and the rich, dark soil at places like Ma‘o Organic Farms, where Kenney gets his greens. And although 85 to 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is still imported—the Islands have a long and complicated agricultural history—the grassroots movement to grow more food locally has reached a tipping point.
Even a few years ago, choice beyond tropical fruit was limited, Kenney notes. “Now, we have purslane, carrots, heirloom beans. Farmers’ markets with one row of stalls now have four.” Ranchers, cheesemakers, and mushroom growers are adding more fresh options, beyond veggies, helping to inspire a new era of Hawaii cuisine. Go taste for yourself.
BIG NIGHT OUT
Big Island | CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Kohala Coast. This kitchen has launched the careers of many Hawaii regional-cuisine chefs (Alan Wong, for one). The heaping bowl of Kona-raised clams with Hilo corn, piquillo peppers, and the hottest Big Island ingredient—fiddlehead ferns from the lush, forested Waipi‘o Valley—is a study in sweet-savory balance. The restaurant excels in seafood, like deep-caught ahi and Kona-farmed shrimp. $$$$; 68-1400 Mauna Lani Dr.; 808/881-7911.
Kauai | Gaylord’s at Kilohana, Lihue. Set on an old plantation, this may be the most romantic place to eat on Kauai. The food leans to traditional (mahimahi with mashed potatoes), but some dishes show more flavor range, such as sesame-seed seared ahi with ginger scallion sushi rice and lomilomi tomatoes. $$$; 3-2087 Kaumuali‘i Hwy.; 808/245-9593.
Kauai | The Tavern at Princeville. Hawaii regional-cuisine pioneer Roy Yamaguchi has opened restaurants all over the world. His latest in Hawaii serves his favorite comfort-food dishes, like short ribs with cheesy grits. Most of the vegetables come from the 1/4-acre kitchen garden, and local ingredients shine in the Kauai shrimp and butterfly pasta with Hamakua mushrooms. $$$; 5-3900 Kuhio Hwy.; 808/826-8700.
Maui | Market Fresh Bistro, Makawao. At this small restaurant in a historic cowboy town, chef Justin Pardo goes hyper-local: His Upcountry vegetable salad is grown on this side of Maui. It’s all good here, but the taro-crusted amberjack in a tomato-saffron broth with roasted rainbow carrots is unlike anything you can get on the Mainland. $$$$; closed Mon; 3620 Baldwin Ave.; 808/572-4877.
Maui | The Plantation House, Kapalua. The open-air dining room and sweeping views alone would be worth the trip. But chef Alex Stanislaw has been doing locavore cuisine here since 1992, long before it was cool, and his devotion shows in dishes like A Taste of Maui: pistachio-crusted fresh fish on Maui onions, Kula tomatoes, Upcountry spinach, and Mediterranean couscous. $$$$; 2000 Plantation Club Dr.; 808/669-6299.
Oahu | Town, Kaimuki. Chef Ed Kenney is Oahu’s farm-to-table man of the moment: First Lady Obama tapped him for organic-food luncheons, talks, and tours last time she visited. Town turns out modern-rustic dishes like hand-cut pasta with Hawaii octopus, fennel, tomato, and herbs. Look for snout-to-tail specials—Kenney buys and butchers a pig each week—as well as the no-canned-juice-here Ernesto cocktail of Hawaiian rum, lime, grapefruit, and rosemary. $$$; closed Sun; 3435 Wai‘alae Ave.; 808/735-5900.