HONOLULU, Hawaii — The capital of our 50th state is known for many things: arguably the world's most famous beach, the iconic silhouette of Diamond Head, the Pearl Harbor Memorial and the transcendent Aloha spirit that makes most who visit fall in love.
What Honolulu is becoming increasingly known for, however, is a vibrant culinary scene that can hold its own with any Mainland metropolis.
I was reminded again of just how vibrant on a recent trip to its annual Food & Wine Festival.
In its fifth year, the festival spanned three weekends (Aug. 29-Sept. 13) and three islands — Oahu, Maui and Hawaii — offering bounty from land and sea, and wines and spirits to accompany that bounty. Being the greedy person that I am, I wish I could have done it all, but even the greediest of us can't justify a three-week feeding frenzy.
Still, I made the most of my time in Honolulu. At the festival, I experienced opposite extremes at a casual urban luau and a très chic poolside cocktail event.
Tradition and a modern take on that tradition squared off at the Hamehameha Schools Urban Luau where five contemporary chefs partnered with local restaurants known for traditional Hawaiian fare. The partnership resulted in a classic island dish reinvented with a new twist.
On another night, Chopstix & Cocktails, celebrating the cuisines of several Asian countries and craft cocktails, was held poolside at the Modern Hotel. Thirteen international chefs, from London to New York to San Francisco, and master mixologists were on hand to offer foodies a one-two punch of delicious dishes and drinks.
Beyond the festival
As impressive as the Food & Wine Festival has become in only five years, you don't have to wait until next September to experience Honolulu's varied culinary scene.
From food tours in ethnic neighborhoods to food trucks to world-class restaurants, it's a veritable feast year-round.
Walking and tasting tours are offered in several Honolulu neighborhoods that serve as melting pots of culinary exploration, including Chinatown, the Ala Moana neighborhood, and the newest, Kaimuki.
I set out one afternoon to see what this funky hood had to offer. Turns out, it's plenty.
My first stop was Gelato Hawaii, an artisanal gelato shop whose 90 flavors are offered on a rotating basis, although the staff says demand for the chocolate cookies and cream is such that it's offered daily.
Just across the street from Gelato Hawaii is Otto Cake, and it's difficult to tell which is the bigger draw — the 270 flavors of cheesecake made from scratch by Otto, or Otto himself — a tattooed cancer survivor who also plays bass in a band he describes as "similar to Clash."
The secret to Otto's success is in his crust, a closely guarded recipe which he says has only four ingredients. And which of the 270 cheesecakes is the biggest seller?
"It has to be the P.O.G.," he says. "Passionfruit, orange and guava."
Other Kaimuki establishments feature a craft brewery, Moroccan and Korean delicacies and a classic French bakery.
Viewers of the TV series Hawaii Five-O find comic relief in the character of Kamekona Tuepolo, a bald, beefy informant who helps the Five-O team solve crimes while also providing them with shrimp and shaved ice from his mobile food truck.
While in Honolulu, you may not run into Kamekona, but if you have a hankering for fresh shrimp, check out Tim Johnson's Five Star Shrimp Truck at the Pau Hana Market on Beach Walk. Johnson, whose tiger prawns are a local favorite, gets his shrimp from Kuhuku on Oahu's North Shore.
Shrimp isn't the only offering. While at the Beach Walk market, I made the rounds of trucks featuring Kamitoku's Ramen Noodles, Bubbles Ice Cream and Hau Noni Shaved Ice and the O'Hanaburger Waikiki.
Restaurants for every taste
The islands have come a long way from the days when tasteless poi, and spam and sausages constituted Hawaiian cuisine. Honolulu has become restaurant central with chefs such as Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and Sam Choy achieving a level of success that has made them household names on the Mainland and beyond.
The only reason Chef George Mavrothalassitis is not a household name is because most people can't pronounce it, but Chef Mavro has no trouble packing in the diners (it's a favorite of Hawaii Five-O star Alex O'Loughlin) at his South King Street restaurant.
At Chef Mavro, diners choose from one of the tasting menus where each dish is accompanied by a carefully selected wine. I did just that, opting for the 9-course meal (there are four and six course menus, and if you're prepared to settle in for the night, there is a 13-course menu as well.)
Starting with an amuse bouche of watercress and red radish with shoyu Japanese mayo dip, I gamely progressed through a menu that featured roasted Keahole lobster, island sweet corn and shiso fritter; wagyu beef medallions and Big Island goat cheese mousse with strawberry jam, baby arugula, fresh green peppercorns and honeycomb candy.
By the time I made it to pre-dessert (pre-dessert?), island watermelon in champagne gelee with fresh mint, and actual dessert, Waialua chocolate bar with caramel sesame crumbs and basil essence, I didn't think I could eat another bite. Somehow I managed.
Chef Mavro may be the very essence of fine dining, but other Honolulu favorites offer a more laid-back, casual atmosphere. Head back to the Kaimuki area for brunch at Koko Head Café. Lee Anne Wong, who made a name for herself in the first season of BRAVO's Top Chef, deserted the island of Manhattan for the island of Oahu to open this diner-style spot which does a flourishing breakfast and lunch trade seven days a week.
Koko Head is known for its daily dumpling special — on the day I was there it was crispy BBQ chicken dumplings with whiskey BBQ sauce and pineapple salsa. With apologies to Colonel Sanders, these were the definition of finger-lickin' good.
If you want a taste of old Hawaii, head out Ala Moana Boulevard to the Highway Inn. This modest eatery has been a labor of love for the Toguchis, a Hawaiian-Okinawan family, since its opening in 1947. Current owner Monica Toguchi is the third generation and a passionate advocate of authentic island cooking although with a modern twist.
The Highway Inn is famous for lau-lau, pork and salted butterfish wrapped in taro leaves and slow cooked, and for poke, the Hawaiian version of ceviche.
Whether it's fine dining or casual eateries, food trucks or food festivals, as they say in the islands, "hele mai, a e 'ai pu — Come taste the difference."