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August 2013

Chefs Fire Up Island Culinary Choices

by Maria Lenhart

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After shifting into high gear more than a decade ago, the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement is cruising right along as hot new restaurants come on the scene. Many are additions to the local empires built by celebrity chefs, including such HRC icons as Alan Wong, Peter Merriman, Bev Gannon and Chai Chaowasaree.

No longer about tasting poi at a luau, Hawaii’s cuisine is now a key attraction for visitors, including meeting attendees, says Lisa Nakamasu, director of sales for the Kauai Visitors Bureau.

“Planners are specifically asking us about cuisine options—and we’re proud to say we’ve really moved the needle up on this,” she says. “Years ago we didn’t have much to hang our hat on. But now there are wonderful restaurants everywhere, as well as the chance to try fruits you’ve never tasted before.”

The explosion in new restaurant choices on all the major islands is making dine-arounds much easier to plan than in years past, notes Frank Robinson, owner of Island Events Hawaii, a local DMC.

“There are now so many great restaurant choices within a few minutes of each other, not just in Waikiki but in places like Wailea in south Maui, in the Kona area on the Big Island and at Poipu in Kauai,” he says. “You can combine a mix of restaurants in the resort hotels as well as stand-alone places.”

Among Robinson’s favorite new choices for dine-arounds and small groups is Amasia, opened last year at the Maui Grand Wailea by Alan Wong, who also owns the acclaimed Alan Wong restaurant in Honolulu. The restaurant is tucked inside the resort’s Japanese garden surrounded by 800 tons of rock from Mt. Fuji and a pond filled with koi and turtles. With menu items that range from a Maui “cowboy” ribeye steak to chili-garlic Dungeness crab and robata grill items, the restaurant offers private tatami rooms as well as a formal dining area.

Another HRC chef who is expanding his presence in Hawaii is Peter Merriman, owner of Merriman’s restaurants in Oahu, Kauai and Maui. His newest, more casual venture is Monkeypod Kitchen, which has locations in Wailea, Maui and Ko Olina, Oahu. The restaurants feature wood-oven pizzas, locally sourced entrees served family style and a wide range of beers on tap.

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