KAMUELA, Hawaii — Once a week Mrs. Lu hikes a treacherous trail to the bottom of the Waipio Valley to gather fern shoots--luscious, fiddle-headed vegetables used in salads.
On the slopes of Mauna Kea, Nancy Lindsey grows poha berries--tart berries similar to a Cape gooseberry, and combines them with pineapple or papaya to create delectable preserves.
And in the green, eucalyptus-studded countryside of Honokaa, Richard and Laura Spiegel process a delicate white honey from nectar gathered by bees in oceanside kiawe groves.
These entrepreneurs are part of a growing creativity of food and flavor that has hit the Big Island of Hawaii. Encouraged by bright young chefs in the hotels and restaurants along the Kona/Kohala Coast, farmers on Hawaii are growing such specialties as Waimea lettuce and Kamuela spinach in the mineral-rich volcanic soil.
Lamb and veal are organically grown, and abalone is farmed in the waters off the Kona Coast. Long famous for its macadamia nut orchards and Kona coffee plantations, the Big Island is now at the center of an emerging Hawaiian cuisine that combines innovative techniques with the best of locally produced ingredients.
Rave Reviews Earned
Chief exponent of the new cuisine is Peter Merriman, who served a three-year stint as chef at the Gallery restaurant at the Mauna Lani Racquet Club. In December he opened his own restaurant, Merriman's, in Waimea.
"I describe what I do as American regional cuisine that comes from Hawaii," he said as workers put the finishing touches to the Hawaiian Art Deco decor of the new establishment. "It's not the traditional island dishes such as poi and chicken luau. But I take ingredients that are grown here on the island and give them a new twist."
One new twist that was a favorite at the Gallery and is also served at Merriman's is wok-charred ahi, an appetizer of fresh tuna, raw in the center and lightly charred on the outside. It was served here before being copied by mainland chefs. Other appetizers are kalua pig pate and pineapple poki --raw tuna marinated in soy sauce and spices and served with pineapple and nori (fresh seaweed).
"They're growing fresh seaweed here now that is wonderful," Merriman says. "In fact, the local farmers provide us with almost everything we need--fresh vegetables and herbs. There's a farmer in Waimea who is raising veal the old-fashioned natural way, and Kahua Ranch is providing me with excellent fresh lamb. And catfish is being raised off the Kohala Coast."
Four Ways With Fish
Whether it's mahi-mahi, opakapaka or any of the seafood that is caught locally, the fresh fish of the day can be prepared any of four ways. On our visit the choices were baked in filo and served in a saffron/dill sauce, broiled and served with a fresh tomato/herb sauce, steamed in ginger or sauteed with lemon and capers. Desserts feature such local ingredients as macadamia nuts and fresh coconut. All of the entrees are under $20.
Other chefs on the island are also making the most of Hawaii's bounty. Daniel Thiebaut, executive chef at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, features local produce in The Garden restaurant, a quietly elegant room decorated with hand-carved wooden bowls from South Pacific islands.
We began with a Waimanu breadfruit soup, similar to a squash soup but smoother and richer. Waimea lettuce was crisp and fresh, and a smoked chicken salad was topped with Mrs. Lu's fernshoots. Roast loin of wild boar in a pineapple and ohelo berry glaze was flavorful without being overly strong. And Mauna Kea lau-lau, fresh fish flavored with ginger and steamed in ti leaves, was tender, slightly sweet and heavenly.
Dessert highlights were a chocolate haupia , a pudding-like combination of chocolate and coconut, and a strawberry gratin, a creamy concoction layered with fresh strawberries and topped with a passion fruit glaze. Entrees from $20 to $32; appetizers, soups and desserts $4 to $9.
Other hotels along this coast also feature regional specialties. Meals at Kona Village are for resort guests only, but the Friday night luau--one of the best and most authentic in the islands--is open to the public at $46. The Kona Provision Co., in the new amusement park-like Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, serves salads, sandwiches and local seafoods in a setting overlooking the Pacific, from $7 to $14.
For a casual treatment of local specialties there's We're Talk'N Pizza, a pizza parlor in Kawaihae. Plants and changing art exhibits decorate the room. Started last year by David L. Palmer, a former chef at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, the restaurant features such pizzas as Di Mare, with scallops, bay shrimp, clams and calamari; Greek, with black olives, sweet peppers, feta cheese and wilted spinach, and Al Pesto, with fresh basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and eggplant.