Fifteen years ago I made a good decision, and married my favorite person. Three kids, two houses, a successful business and a couple dozen chickens later, we realized we would fortuitously be in Oahu for our anniversary — a perfecter place to celebrate we couldn’t have planned!
Through more of my pre-vacation research, I zeroed in on a restaurant called “Town” that I thought would make the appropriate anniversary dinner destination. A chef named Ed Kenney was creating interesting, Italian-influenced Hawaiian cuisine with an emphasis on traditional island ingredients and strong relationships with local farms.
In the meantime, in the days leading up to our visit to Town, I was scouring grocery stores, the local Waimanalo Co-op and farmer’s markets, and holing up in the kitchen, making stuff.
One of my oldest Hawaiian recipes, pre-dating the advent of this blog by a good quarter century or more, is coconut ribs. At some point in my youth, grilling ribs on the beach in Maui, I discovered that a good slathering of Hawaiian Sun coconut syrup created a beautiful sweet glaze on a rack of baby backs that was truly unparalleled in the world of grilled ribs. Were I more ambitious man, I could build a restaurant empire on this very dish.
More in-laws arrived at the house and I made dinner for scores — Hawaiian-style crab cakes served on sweet chili iceberg lettuce and Maui onion salad; and coconut ribs on ginger garlic pancit noodles with crispy Maui onion rings. At the Waimanalo People’s Open Market, I found a bunch of wild mountain ferns that I blanched then sautéed with butter, ginger and soy sauce.
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We set out for our 7 p.m. dinner reservation around 5:30, to enjoy the scenic drive north along the coast into Honolulu and perhaps get a drink if we arrived early.
I had tweeted Mr. Kinney in advance to let him know we would be celebrating our anniversary at Town, and to tell him I might be interested in doing a blog post about the restaurant. He replied graciously in anticipation. The restaurant was on the outskirts of town, in a working class-ish neighborhood of 50s-era storefronts that appeared to be in something of a revival.
We were indeed early, so we saddled up to the bar. I am of the opinion that it is always good to begin an evening out at the bar, and it is often the best place to stay. I was pleased to see my friend Michael’s Del Maguey brand mezcal well represented. We took it as a sign and ordered two mezcal cocktails.
A short time later we were seated at a stainless steel table in the stylishly appointed restaurant amongst attractive young servers and mostly white, upwardly mobile patrons. They were several pairs of older women — who in each case picked up the check — with younger men, and we wondered if they could all possibly be mother/son combinations.
We ordered the tasting menu with wine pairings. The opening salvo, an amuse bouche of “fig from the tree out front” with mint and cheese, was impressive — a convergence of flavors I would not have thought of.
From there, the meal proceeded with delicious highs and a few minor misses. A salad composed of avocado, mango, pecans and green goddess once again nailed the right symphony of flavors, accented perfectly by a Spanish white albarino. A pancake of local goat cheese with tomato and chive followed, not quite as spectacularly but tasty nonetheless. The third course, gnocchi with pancetta, cabbage and mustard was surprising and superb, although over salted. A square of local opah (moonfish) was perfectly cooked — crispy on the outside, meltingly tender inside — with farro, kale and aioli. The final entree of rabbit saddle confit was extremely salty, but cut nicely by stewed garbanzo beans and bitter greens.
Overall a bargain at $65 per person ($85 with wines).
Beyond the over salting, the only constructive thoughts I would offer Mr. Kinney regarded an overly casual plating. Many of the dishes came to the table in what looked like white cafeteria cereal bowls, the food shadowed by the sides of the bowl and difficult to see. What were thoughtful compositions of flavors, textures and colors were somewhat lost, where they might’ve impressed even more had they been presented on the right canvas.
A salted chocolate pretzel tart capped the night, and we were back out on the highway south, waves crashing on volcanic cliffs our soundtrack home.
And then it was morning again — 15 years and a day — the sun rising over the Pacific from the direction of home. And I was back in the kitchen, whisk to bowl, mixing up a batch of macadamia nut pancakes.