HONOLULU — Among the canyons of Waikiki's high-rise buildings we found some excellent restaurants. In fact, the area is well on its way to becoming a culinary star of the Pacific.
"A few years ago the food in the Islands was terrible," said Guy Banal, owner and chef of Bon Appetit, a French bistro at the edge of Waikiki.
"But while nobody was paying attention to us, we started combining the cuisines of East and West to create a Hawaiian cuisine that will hold its own with any in the world."
Banal and other chefs in Honolulu are mixing organically grown vegetables, tropical fruits and fresh fish with classic European and Asian techniques to create some remarkable dishes.
Banal, who studied and apprenticed in France, said: "It's not just mahi-mahi anymore."
Hidden on the ground floor of an office complex on Ala Moana Boulevard, Bon Appetit features such dishes as onion soup made with three kinds of Island onions and topped with Brie and Swiss cheeses ($5.95), and a Tahitian salad, a poisson cru made with raw tuna, sliced thinly and marinated in lime juice, then served with grated carrots, onion and coconut milk ($5.95).
Using Local Products
"This is Island food with a French touch," Banal said.
"I like to work with the local products."
Making use of the island's bounty was not always easy. "I looked everywhere for fresh basil when I came here 20 years ago," said Sergio Batistetti, owner and chef of Sergio's Italian restaurant.
"No one had ever heard of it. So I brought some seeds from home and grew my own."
Spurred by the demands of such chefs as Banal and Batistetti, local farms have begun to supply a cornucopia of fresh produce--Maui onions, kula tomatoes, Molokai sweet potatoes, organically grown mushrooms, watercress, baby vegetables and herbs.
"Now we get everything," Batistetti said. "Fresh thyme, sorrel, sage, even arugula."
Like Banal's French cuisine, Batistetti's Italian dishes have an Island flavor.
His seafood risotto ($16), for example, is exquisite. It's made with local mussels, calamari , bay shrimp, clams and prawns. The rice is cooked in a mixture of white wine and orange juice and topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and fresh oregano.
"We use the classical techniques, of course," Batistetti said. "They have been around for 400 years. But we combine those techniques with the tastes of today and use the wonderful local ingredients."
Chief among these ingredients is seafood. Hawaii is one of the few states in the nation to really serve fresh fish, and in Honolulu it's possible to eat fish within hours of its being caught.
Daily Fish Auction
During an early morning visit to the daily fish auction downtown, huge yellowfin tuna, swordfish, skipjack tuna, red snapper and mackerel are laid out in long rows for sale.
Tuna caught during the night is sold for sashimi and sushi, and one can even find rare species such as the disc-like sunfish. Aquaculture farms also are raising tiger prawns, shrimp and even seaweed on Oahu, and off the Big Island of Hawaii, small, dollar-size abalone are being grown.
Local fish and seafood give an Island flavor to the bouillabaisse ($13.50) served in Orchids restaurant at the Halekulani Hotel. As in Provence the rich fish stew is served with croutons and aioli (a garlic mayonnaise), but the ingredients include such local specialties as kumu, a fish considered a delicacy.
"This is a French recipe using Hawaiian fish," Orchids chef Ian Risley said.
The restaurant specializes in Island cuisine and features such dishes as broiled opakapaka (mackerel) with watercress salad and fresh hearts of palm ($16.50); ono, a firm, white-fleshed fish sauteed with light ginger cream sauce ($17), and brochette of kahuku shrimp with a lemon-grass sauce ($20.50). The food was light and matched our mood on a warm tropical night.
"The great cuisine of any region depends on the ingredients available," Risley said. "The fresh ingredients here in Hawaii are different from anywhere else in the world--they grow in combinations you don't find anywhere else.
"Also, Hawaii is a real melting pot of cultures--Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese--and all of these influences make for an infinitely varied cuisine."
La Mer, the Halekulani's fine dining room, is more traditionally French than Hawaiian under executive chef Philippe Padovani.
We dined one evening on baby eggplant with zucchini flowers, new potato salad with a cream sauce and caviar, broiled opakapaka in oyster sauce, a salad with warm truffles and fois gras and a perfect lilikoi (a local berry) souffle with kiwi sauce.
The dinner cost about $60 per person without wine. Although the dishes were highly imaginative, the execution lacked the intensity of fresh flavors that we had come to expect. An exception was the tart-sweet lilikoi souffle. All in all, however, the dinner lacked the culinary excitement normally seen with such high prices.