A few decades ago, a dozen Hawaii-based chefs got together to formalize and trademark the term Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a regional American culinary style that utilized Hawaiian-grown and raised ingredients while giving props to the ethnic styles that various immigrant groups—including Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Filipino, and Southeast Asian—had brought with them to the islands.
And while I’ve enjoyed (and written at length about) supping on the culinary creations of Chefs Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi at their respective eponymous restaurants, I’d never dined at any of Chef Peter Merriman’s restaurants, until this most recent trip to Hawaii.
The “Pied Piper of Hawaii Regional Cuisine” (as he was dubbed by The Los Angeles Times), Merriman opened his first signature restaurant, Merriman’s, in 1988 on the Big Island, where (according to The New York Times) “…everything features the freshest local ingredients paired in exciting ways.”
The Honolulu outpost of Merriman’s, at Ward Village, adheres to all of the ideals that Merriman has preached for more than thirty years, with a menu positively teeming with locally-sourced ingredients, presented in a fashion that works just as well for a couple on a date or a group of five wanting to dine family-style.
Every single thing I tasted that night was made from ingredients so fresh they’d likely been caught or harvested within 24 hours of being served. Talk about “locavore” cuisine!! Also, many of the dishes were comfort foods from other regions to which Merriman had given an HRC-twist.
We began the meal with a round of Merriman’s Mai Tais (Old Lahaina light and dark rums, lime, housemade mac-nut orgeat, orange Curaçao, and honey-lilikoi foam) that were far yummier than you’d think anything that potent would be.
Then we ordered a veritable smorgasbord of appetizers for the group. There was the Kalua Pig Quesadilla (housemade kimchee and mango chili sauce), which was piquant and zesty. Harkening back to Merriman’s Pittsburgh roots, the Housemade Pierogis (Polish-style ravioli with potato and handmade sauerkraut, fresh applesauce, and brown butter) were pretty much plated-perfection as far as my tastebuds were concerned. And that night’s soup special, French Onion Soup (with Maui onions, Swiss cheese, and baguette) was just lovely.
The Tako & Country Bread (octopus served in the style of escargot, with cognac garlic butter, and country bread) was something I’d never seen, let alone conceived of, prior to this meal, and it was not only far tastier than I’d expected but left me wondering why other restaurants haven’t simply stolen this dish for their own menus. Also, I think Merriman should consider selling Cognac Garlic Butter by the bottle. Sure, folks’ll likely succumb to heart failure far sooner than they might have otherwise, but they’ll do so with smiles on their faces. *
But the tastiest of our appetizers were also the seemingly simplest. The Shrimp Truck Prawns (with garlic, ginger, lemon, and local cabbage slaw), if not the very best tasting and seasoned shrimp I’ve ever had, came pretty damn close.
And while others chose from Merriman’s signature dishes for their entrées—including the Toro Falafel (a Waipio Valley taro falafel with Hau’ula tomato-braised lentils, and Ma’o Farms kale, with garlic naan and ginger cilantro crema) and the Macadamia Nut Crusted Fresh Fish (Mahi-Mahi with mushroom sake reduction, Hokkaido artisanal brown rice, and vegetables)—and another opted for that evening’s From the Sea special, Hawaiian ‘Uku’ Snapper Cooked A La Plancha (grilled snapper served with Maine lobster and shrimp ravioli, garlic and chili sautéed Mahi Pono broccoli, and Hau’ula herb tomato relish); I decided to go lighter, and ordered Peter’s Original Caesar (Hirabara Farms organic baby romaine with fried green tomato ‘croutons’) with fresh Mahi Mahi. I mean, who knew Mahi Mahi went so wonderfully with a Caesar salad? (Peter Merriman, apparently!)
Someone ordered the Bread Pudding (Maui Gold pineapple, macadamia nuts, rum butter sauce, and housemade vanilla ice cream), but I paid it no mind, as I was far too busy being blown away by the fantastic flavors of the Strawberry Ice Cream, made in-house from fresh strawberries grown in Waimea, on the Big Island.
After this sensational meal, there is no doubt in my mind why, back in 1992, when the twelve founding chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine decided to start a non-profit organization, it was Peter Merriman who they chose as their founding president. Mahalo, Chef!
Ward Village, Honolulu, Hawaii
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[Editor’s Note: * Tako is the Japanese word for octopus.]