Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blue Hawaii

Much as I love the charms of a Vermont winter, at about this time of year I like to get away to warmer climes. As I write, we’re in the midst of Winter Storm Nemo, but I’m still glowing from a recent trip to Hawaii with Chris. He had the good fortune to need to do some research on Oahu, so I went along and we added on a few days on Kauai. We had never been to these two islands before, just to Maui and the Big Island, but with Kauai we saved the best for last. It’s the Vermont of Hawaii, with stunning scenery, a low-key vibe, and an eclectic mix of people.

While Chris was working, I met up with my old friend Debbie Japzon Gillum who now lives on Oahu. She’s a few years older than me and was technically one of my sister’s friends, but since all three of us were pretty serious competitive swimmers, I became friends with Debbie too. It was only fitting that we go snorkeling, so she and I spent a day catching up at gorgeous Hanauma Bay. 

The next day, Chris and I had dinner at Alan Wong’s with another old high school friend, John Sommer, and his wife Jensin.

Alan Wong’s is considered by many to be the best restaurant in all of Hawaii. Featuring fusion cuisine, it draws from various Asian traditions, along with a healthy dose of French and Portuguese—like this appetizer of clams, shitake mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, and Kalua pig served in a foil bag that resembles a giant Jiffy Pop container. 

Photo by Jensin Sommer

I had never tasted Kalua pig before, but it’s now one of my favorite Hawaiian foods, a succulent, smoky barbecued pork that resembles North Caroline barbecue. In the native tradition, the whole pig is slow-cooked in a pit for seven hours. Combined with the briny clams and garlicky vegetables, the flavor was on par with the dramatic presentation. 

Photo by Jensin Sommer

Being in Hawaii, all of us went with fish for our main course. I ordered the Opakapaka (short-tail pink snapper) with shrimp pork hash, truffle nage, gingered vegetables, and tapioca pearls. Again, the presentation was impressive—art on the plate. And art on the palate as well. Hints of French cuisine melded beautifully with the dominant Chinese flavors.

Photo by Jensin Sommer

Chris ordered the ginger crusted Onaga (long-tail red snapper) with miso sesame vinaigrette, organic Hamakua mushrooms and Kahuku corn. This dish had the prettiest presentation, and highlighted locally grown vegetables, an indication that the farm to plate movement is catching on in Hawaii.

Photo by Jensin Sommer

For dessert, we shared a crème brûlée made with lilikoi, aka passion fruit. I first tasted passion fruit on a breakfast fruit plate the first time we visited Hawaii (Maui) about ten years ago, and I find the complex sweet-tart flavor irresistible. As the base note in a tropical crème brûlée, it was genius.

Photo by Jensin Sommer

When we moved on to Kauai, the only slight disappointment was the food. Our dinners were fine and the fish was exquisitely fresh, but none of the meals was especially interesting. I suppose it’s hard to rival Alan Wong’s. The one exception was a pizza we had at Merriman’s, topped with pineapple, pesto, jalapeños, and—miracle of miracles—Kalua pig.

We devoured two and a half of these small pizzas (really, they were small), and I ate the last half for breakfast the next morning while sitting on the terrace outside our room watching the humpbacks play. Paradise.

One day we drove up to Hanalei (of Puff the Magic Dragon fame) and stumbled upon their farmers market. The atmosphere reminded me of some of our markets here in Vermont, although the selection was quite different. 

We bought some apple bananas, which are small in size but big in flavor, 

and fresh lilikoi, which we ate by scooping the seeds and juice out of its skin with a spoon. 

The day of our departure, I was craving lilikoi one last time, so we stopped at one of the islands’ ubiquitous smoothie bars. 

As I was going on rapturously about lilikoi, the smoothie barrista generously put in extra for me. Bless her. I slurped it down on the drive to the airport. 

I managed to find some lilikoi jam to bring home, so on this snowy morning I was able to have a taste of Hawaii spread on my toast.


  1. Sheila,

    Thank you for letting me know about your trip in advance so we could enjoy a day of warm Hawaiian sunshine together at Hanauma Bay. It was fun catching up after so many years.

    By the way, those bananas are called "apple bananas" and we have a tree in our yard. We harvested our first bunch in December and I have pictures posted on my FB page, if you're interested in seeing the whole process. We just love apple bananas. We harvested 90 in the first bunch and you'd be amazed at how quickly they ripen!

  2. It was so great to catch up with you in HI. I ended up with a bit of a burn since we were chatting so much and I lost track of how long we were in the sun! Not as bad as Nationals in FL though...

    I love the flavor of those bananas--so different from what we can get here. Will have to check out your photos on fb. Wow, what did you do with 90 bananas?