During our trip to Kauai earlier this year, we were looking for a good place to go out for a nice seafood in the area. We were staying just south of Kapa'a along the eastern shore of the island and one of the bartenders at our hotel was telling us about a place that was at a resort just up the road - Hukilau Lanai. We made reservations to have dinner there that evening.
Hukilau is the term for a style of fishing ancient Hawaiians did from the shore. "Huki" means "pull" in the Hawaiian language, while "lau" means "leaves". Ancient Hawaiian fishermen would weave leaves from banana and coconut trees together to form a type of net that they would then swim with out into the ocean and pull back toward the beach to catch fish. Similar types of fishing celebrations occur around Hawaii today. And the term "lanai" is the Hawaiian word for "patio" and the Hukilau Lanai is an indoor/outdoor upscale seafood restaurant located in the Kauai Coast Resort At The Beachboy, a Shell Hospitality property in Kapa'a.
The Hukilau Lanai dates back to 2002 when the Kauai Coast Resort opened up. Alaskan transplants Wally and Roberta Wallace were the original owners of Gaylord's, a restaurant at the upscale Kilohana Plantation resort near Lihue that opened in 1986. When the Kauai Coast Resort was in the planning stages, the Wallaces were contacted about running the restaurant there. However, before the resort and restaurant opened, Wally Wallace passed away. When the restaurant opened, they named the bar area Wally's Lobby Bar in memory of Wally Wallace.
Roberta Wallace, along with her daughter Paige and Paige's husband, Russ Talvi continued to run both the Hukilai Lanai and Gaylord's (changing the name to 22 North in the early 2000's as the 22 north parallel latitude runs through Kauai). Working with them in running the kitchen and front of house at Hukilai Lanai was their talented chef Ron Miller and his wife, Krissi.
Ron Miller grew up in Pennsylvania and got his first job washing dishes and bussing tables at The Sun Porch, a popular buffet restaurant in Hopwood, a small town near the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border. Miller was a free-spirit and enjoyed the relationships he developed with people at the restaurant. He eventually became a cook at The Sun Porch and moved on to the Allen Room (now the Allen Street Grill) in State College, PA.
At the Allen Room, Miller was able to spread his culinary wings and offer foods made from scratch with a menu that sometimes changed daily. The menus were all handwritten with what Miller was making that particular day from fresh foods he got from local food purveyors and markets.
The Allen Room was small - it sat 35 people - so going from there to a large 400 seat restaurant in Northern Virginia was quite the stretch. But he found that his acumen in running a restaurant was exactly what the struggling restaurant needed and business turned around while Miller was in charge of the place.
It was at the Virginia restaurant that Miller met his wife, Krissi. Married in the mid-90's, the Millers saw an opportunity to move to Hawaii and they ended up on Oahu in 1997 with Ron Miller assisting the famous Hawaiian chef/restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi at the original Roy's Hawaii Kai. Roy Yamaguchi was one of the original 12 Hawaiian chefs who championed the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement of using locally raised foods and fresh caught fish from the Pacific Ocean.
After a couple of years at Roy's, the Millers moved to Kauai to work at Gaylord's partnering up with the Wallace family before the untimely passing of Wally Wallace. When Hilukai Lanai opened in 2002, Ron and Krissi Miller made the transition to the new restaurant.
Roberta Wallace, now Roberta Cline, was wanting to divest herself of the two restaurants on Kauai, and Paige and Russ Talvi were looking to move back to Alaska to open a summer lodge - they eventually opened the Port Ashton Lodge on Prince William Sound. They sold their interest in the Hilukai Lanai to Ron and Krissi Miller who returned in 2010, then sold 22 North to another party who renamed it Gaylord's.
Pictured right - Ron and Krissi Miller. Photo courtesy MidWeek Kauai.
Along with the Millers, three of the four other chefs in the kitchen started at Hilukai Lanai when it opened in 2002. Executive sous chef Bobby Krause and sous chefs Regie Anical and Adam Phelps have all been in the kitchen since day one. Sous chef Eliza Vicoy is the "newby" having started at the restaurant in 2006. In an industry where kitchen turnover is a problem, the kitchen at Hulikai Lanai is pretty stable.
Initially, I tried to make reservations at Hulikai Lanai via Open Table, but it said that the earliest we could get in would be 8:30 p.m. That's a little too late for my wife and we really wanted to eat there. I've found that Open Table can sometimes be a little off with their reservation times and I ended up calling the restaurant to see if we could get in earlier. Since the restaurant didn't open until 5 p.m., I got the answering machine. I left a message that we would be interested in seating for two at 7:30, but would take 8:00 p.m. if 7:30 wasn't available. Around 4 p.m. I got a call back from someone at the restaurant that 7:30 for 2 would be fine. It was another instance where Open Table didn't help with requested times, but calling the restaurant got us in when we wanted.
We pulled into the Kauai Coast Resort around 7:20 p.m., located just off the Kuhio Highway on the Aleka Loop. (see map) The next door Coconut Marketplace was undergoing some extensive renovations and many of the stores were closed due to construction. We were hoping to visit the Lappert's Ice Cream shop after dinner, but those were one of the places that were closed.
Coming into the resort, we found the small Wally's Lobby Bar next to the hostess stand. We gave her our name and we were told it would be a short wait. We sat at the bar and were getting ready to order a couple drinks when the hostess came back and said she was ready to seat us.
The dining room had two levels on the inside and then the lanai past that. The lanai was full and there were tables available on the two levels of the inside part of the restaurant. (Open Table failed me again.) We were seated along a wall looking out over the lower level and out into the lanai. It was rather breezy outside with the trade winds coming off the ocean and we were more than happy to be inside than out that evening.
After getting our menus from the hostess, our server for the evening - a young woman with the interesting name of Vannghi (Vonnie) - came over to great us. From the moment she greeted us to the final part of setting down the check later in the evening we felt nothing but hurried by her. She was nice, but she seemed pushy to get us to order drinks right away, to order our food long before we were ready, to take our plates long before we were done, and to push us into desserts at the end of the meal. This was a nice place and we were going to savor the meal.
They had live entertainment that evening in the form of a duo that called themselves Easy Living Jazz. Helen Turner was on flute and acoustic guitarist Jeff Iglesia played a number of laid back classic jazz tunes. All I could think about when she was playing the flute was the scene from the Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman" where his character Ron Burgundy was playing "yazz flute" in the jazz club. But the music was enjoyable enough during our time at Hukilau Lanai. We got a couple of mai tai's to drink (or in my case, sling back) while we perused the menu.
Ron Miller completely believes in using sustainable, locally grown foods and fresh-catch seafood from the ocean. He's a champion of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement that was started by his mentor Roy Yamaguchi (and others) and it's reflected on the menu at Hukilau Lanai. The list of local farms, ranches and fishermen Hukilau Lanai uses on a daily basis is long and varied. And since they opened in 2002, Hukilau Lanai follows a green initiative plan that recycles vegetable oil, coffee grounds, even crayons used for the kids to color with at the table. They've also reduced the amount of energy and water they use in the restaurant, as well as reusing or composting paper products while offering non-styrofoam, biodegradable containers for take-out orders.
There were many interesting items on the menu including seafood, steaks, chicken dishes, pork tenderloin medallions, and something called Wally's Steak Crown Royal named after Wally Wallace and his penchant for Crown Royal Canadian whisky. They were pan-seared peppercorn tenderloin medallions that were cooked in a Crown Royal demi-glace. Those actually sounded pretty good. But I was looking for fresh seafood that evening.
We started off with one of the many appetizers - or pupus - on the menu at Hukilau Lanai, some poke nachos that were developed by sous chef Adam Phelps. They consisted of ahi poke, locally grown sliced tomatoes and avocados, tobiko (flying fish roe), inamona (a Hawaiian relish-type condiment made from roasted kukui nuts), a wasabi cream sauce and placed on top of crispy wonton chips. The fresh ahi poke was wonderful and all the taste sensations going on with the appetizer was almost mind-boggling. This was a great opening for what promised to be a great meal.
We shared a salad before dinner consisting of fresh greens from Kailani Farms, a sustainable organic farm on Kauai's north coast. With the greens were fresh pickled beets, sweet corn off the cob and drizzled with a fresh vinaigrette. For good measure - and $3 bucks more - I got some Maytag Blue Cheese on top of the salad. At least, I asked if it was Maytag Blue as the dairy had been closed since February and a blanket recall of their cheese dating back to November of last year was in effect. Vannghi went back to ask the chef if it was truly Maytag Blue and she came back moments later assuring us that it was, indeed, Maytag Blue Cheese. It had been a significant time since the cheese had been recalled and I was a tad incredulous that this was real Maytag Blue Cheese. Nonetheless, the salad greens were crisp, the beets had that sweet, yet earthy taste, and the blue cheese with the aged balsamic vinegar was pungent and forward in taste.
For our main entrees, I looked long and hard at the Wally's Crown Royal Steak. They also had an interesting meat loaf dish on the menu that was tempting me, as well. But I ended up getting the Cajun-spiced Kajiki (the Hawaiian term for Blue Marlin). It came on a bed of mashed potatoes with an onion brown sauce . Sautéed spinach with a tropical flower perched on top of the marlin. The fish was fresh, but it was a tad overcooked for me. And I didn't get much of a spicy Cajun taste with the fish.
Cindy looked long and hard at getting the Cajun-spiced Kajiki, too, and she almost went with the Hukilau mixed grill - various grilled seafood items with sugar cane-skewered shrimp. It was served with an orzo (Italian barley) pasta in a cream sauce and topped with a Thai coconut-chile sauce. Surprisingly though, she ended up ordering the macadamia nut-encrusted chicken breast. It was served on top of locally grown veggies, then topped with cilantro, micro-greens and a yellow curry sauce. She thought it was fabulous.
Once again, we sort of felt rushed throughout the meal. While I appreciate an attentive server versus one that just disappears, our server seemed to be pushing us to finish up so she could give us the dessert menu. Twice she came by to clear plates when it was still evident that we were still eating as we were taking time to savor the meal between bites.
When we were finally finished with our main entrees, well, of course we had to have dessert and I saw that they had a Hawaiian Vanilla Bean Creme Brûlée. I'm a sucker for all that. They also had a coconut lilikoi tart that my wife wanted to try. We decided to get both.
Oh! Did I mention that it was also my birthday? And a significant one, at that. With the coconut lilikoi tart was a thin chocolate wafer with "Happy Birthday" spelled out on it. My wife had evidently told the server at some point that it was my birthday (probably when I went to use the restroom). A small box with a bow on top containing chocolates was also delivered by our server. The creme brûlée had a nice charred crust to the top with a delicate and tasty custard underneath. The taste of the vanilla was very prevalent. However, the coconut lilikoi tart was out of sight. It had a lilikoi coulis on the plate that went well with the tart taste of the pie. We were both very happy with the desserts we got that evening.
While we did feel hurried at times by our server, our overall experience at Hukilau Lanai was very favorable. My Cajun marlin was a tad overcooked and I would have liked to have had some more spicy seasoning on it, but it was fine for what it was. My wife loved her macadamia nut-encrusted chicken breast served on a bed of local vegetables with a Thai coconut-chile sauce. The atmosphere at Hukilau Lanai was elegant, yet laid back with that Hawaii "aloha" vibe. For being close to our hotel, Hukilau Lanai was a nice choice for a well-above average dinner that evening.