One day for lunch, we ventured over to the Kings' Shops shopping place near our hotel at the Waikoloa Beach Resort looking for a place to eat. We decided to try Merriman's Market Cafe, a casual restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine using locally grown produce and meat, and featuring freshly caught seafood.
Merriman's Market Cafe is part of a family of restaurants owned by restaurateur/chef Peter Merriman. Merriman arrived in Hawaii in the early 80's to become the executive chef at a resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. He quickly found that traditional Hawaiian food left a lot to be desired, considering most of the native food was found at traditional lu'aus. And it wasn't all that great. He began to experiment with innovative dishes that featured the bountiful harvest of what the island could produce, both on the land and from the sea. His combination of taste sensations from locally grown foods garnered him a following with burgeoning "foodies".
In 1988, Merriman (right) and his wife, Vicki, opened their first restaurant, Merriman's, in the middle of ranching country in Waimea. Merriman developed a relationship with local growers and ranchers to get the finest foods available for his restaurant. Merriman's quickly became a destination for tourists and locals who were looking for the best in Hawaiian regional food. It was one of the first gourmet restaurants on the Big Island.
In 1991, Merriman and 11 other Hawaii-based chefs got together to establish what is called Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. Instead of distorting Hawaiian cuisine with frozen, flown-in food from the mainland to appease the taste buds of tourists, Merriman and his fellow chefs combined to come up with recipes that featured the best of what Hawaii had to offer - from the soil, from the ranches and from the sea. Suddenly, Hawaii Regional Cuisine meant more than kalua pork and lomi salmon served buffet style at a lu'au. The concept has allowed these innovative chefs to make Hawaii not only a beach paradise destation, but a food destination, as well.
In the early 90's, Merriman teamed with the TS Restaurant group to open the Hula Grill on Maui. They opened a second Hula Grill in Honolulu after that. Merriman's Market Cafe opened in 2003. And in addition to his Merriman's restaurant on the Big Island, he also has Merriman's locations on Maui and Kauai.
Merriman's Market Cafe has a nice little dining room, but a spacious outdoor dining area with tables under large umbrella's that shade diners from the intense Kohala Coast sun that shines over 300 days a year. We took one of the last available tables outdoors when we went that one afternoon. Our hostess gave us our menus and a waiter was over quickly to take our drink orders.
The lunch menu at Merriman's Market Cafe isn't all that extensive, but it was interesting, nonetheless. The dinner menu is much more lengthy with pasta dishes, ribs, gourmet pizza, and grass-fed beef. They also feature nightly seafood and beef specials, along with a pretty good selection of tapas for appetizers.
At lunch, they also feature a couple of specials. One of the specials that day was a Greek salad topped with a freshly caught spearfish that is grilled in a Moroccan tagine-roasted marinade of garlic and ginger. That's what Cindy ordered.
I'd been sort of hankering for a good burger since we got on the island, but I soon found that good burger joints are really tough to find in Hawaii. Merriman's had a 1/2 pound Market Cafe cheese burger that was topped with white cheddar cheese. I went with that. The waiter asked me, "Would you like bacon and sauteed ali'i mushrooms on that?" I asked him what ali'i mushrooms were and he said they were a Hawaiian grown mushroom. He said, "They're really good grilled and put on top of the burger." How could I say no after that?
It was a great afternoon, nice and warm with a gentle breeze blowing through the outdoor seating area. I was enjoying a few cold Kona Big Wave Golden Ales while Cindy was sipping on a glass of one of their very dry white house wines. I should have found out what it was as she offered me a sip and it was very good.
Our food came out and I was surprised by the size of the burger and the amount of bacon and mushrooms they put on top. There was a large leaf of fresh lettuce and a large, juicy tomato under the fresh sourdough bun. My God, it may have been the best tomato I've ever tasted! Everything about the burger was just great. It was one of the finest gourmet burgers I've ever tasted.
Garlic and chive seasoned french fries came with the burger. I usually don't go for fries all that much, but these were too good to pass up. I was having an exceptional lunch at Merriman's Market Cafe.
Cindy's Greek salad with the grilled spearfish was also wonderful. She gave me a couple bites of her salad and fish in return for some french fries. The fish had a great taste to it, light and flaky. And the Greek salad dressing was so overly flavorful, yet not overpowering. We were having a great lunch.
After lunch, our waiter was trying to tempt us with treats from their dessert menu. Merriman's Market Cafe featured their own gelato cart just outside the outdoor seating area near the mall's promenade. Cindy wanted to try some gelato, but only if I'd help her eat some. I only wanted lemon gelato and it turned out they were out of the lemon flavor. We ended up passing on the dessert, although I do have to say the chocolate Grand Marnier creme brulee sounded pretty interesting.
But quite honestly, we had enough food to satiate us until dinner later that evening. Cindy loved her salad and my burger at Merriman's Market Cafe was outstanding. In fact, when we were talking to our favorite bar waitress back at the hotel, April, she told us she thought everything that Merriman's Market Cafe had to offer was wonderful - including the burger. "I think it's the best burger on the island," she told us after we'd been there. That was the only burger I had when I was on the Big Island and if that was the best in the eyes of a local, that was fine with me.
After our experience at Merriman's Market Cafe, we made a conscious effort to have dinner at Merriman's primary restaurant in Waimea. We did and look for our experience there in an upcoming Road Tips post very soon.
(Update - Although we probably would have never had the chance to go back to Merriman's Market Cafe, I'm still somewhat bummed to find out that it closed in 2014. I'll never forget the taste of the fresh tomato on the burger - a taste of a tomato that I may never find again.)