Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Stars Align at Maui's Huihui

Too often in the restaurant world, when you get a view like the one that kicks off this post, that's pretty much all you get. How greedy should we be, after all, what with a stunning Maui sunset as you stare at Lanai in the distance, and yes, two talented musicians play and a non-cliched hula dancer prances in the foreground, too? 

Well, Huihui, the newest restaurant to open oceanside in Ka'anapali (it's 13 months or so old), wants to deliver even more. This is a paradise, after all, so might as well pile on the goodnesses. They claim the name means constellation, which is fitting given the star-studded evening skies above Maui, but appropriate in other ways too. For example, the ceiling lights in the interior part of the smartly-designed indoor-outdoor space are arranged irregularly, so the bulbs form patterns themselves. And then there's the constellation of success the spot embraces--location, a crack staff, a yummy cocktail program, and, most importantly, scrumptious food from chef Tom Muromoto. 

I didn't get great photos of the drinks, but be sure to get the Lahaina Smokestack if you like smoky cocktails. Just the name is clever, as the Pioneer Mill smokestack dominates the nearby town. In addition to its base of smoked Casamigos tequila, when they bring you the drink they infuse it with a bit of torched wood chips at the table--alas, given the sylvan breezes the smoke zips away quickly, but it's a fun touch.

We started with the appetizer above, poke holokai, which indeed does look more like a sushi roll cut up with fins of taro chips attached (that also make delicious eating implements). The poke during our visit was ahi (it's mackerel if that fish is in season, and as an oilier fish it would have been fun to taste the difference), mixed with a smidge of mayo (for creaminess more than anything) and crab and avo. The nori worked for more crunchiness and salt. 

We were a bit less impressed by the Makawao avocado and crab salad, but that's for easily fixed reasons. First, the greens were underdressed, and needed more of a punch from the citrus oregano dressing. The avo stuffed with crabmeat was spot on, and they wisely served the avocado a bit under-ripe, to make sure the eating had some integrity. Then we just weren't sure about the breadfruit croutons. Certainly novel, they weren't crunchy as much as chewy, lacking much flavor. At least they bring the local and the sustainable.

The mains kicked on all cylinders, though. Above is the tangy fish lāwalu: grilled banana leaf wrapped daily i‘a (fish), creamy abalone sauce, cilantro, pohole (fiddle fern) & ogo (seaweed) relish. That's a scoop of mashed potato on the side. Lots of local ingredients done quite traditionally, with an almost vinegarish kick, probably partially coming from those odd and wonderful orange-ish fruited lime-looking guys on the plate, the calamansi.

But the absolute winner of the evening was the Seafood Huihui, which makes sense--you name a dish after your restaurant, it better carry that weight. Think of it as some Maui-cross of cioppino and a noodle-less laksa. There's so much seafood in there you can easily split it, although perhaps I shouldn't use the word easily, what with a red sauce and the need to remove flesh from shells making it a bit of a dangerous bowl of food for anyone not sporting a bib (they don't offer any). Fish, scallops, shrimp with heads, lobster, snow peas, king mushroom--somehow each separate ingredient was cooked just to and not beyond its appropriate point, usually one of the failings in a stew presentation like this one. (C'mon, you've had the veggies from a crudité plate alongside the fish hammered to mush dish at less skillful kitchens, haven't you?)

Be sure to order rice to soak up the intoxicating sauce, as you will insist on having every drop of it. Rich but not too spicy, it warms more than burns, so while a cousin to a curry, it's not as much vivid as enveloping. What they admit goes into it is coconut milk, tomato broth (plus some actual stewed tomato), and roasted kukui or candlenut, which sounds like a more exotic and pungent version of macadamia from my research.

You can also ask the staff anything and they've got answers, about the food or the history of the restaurant nestled in the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, almost all the way to the famous Black Rock, a distinctive outcrop that catches the last of the sun's rays and then is romantically lit by torches after dark. Timing melded Hawaii laid back--we never felt pressured to eat up--but we also never wound up sitting around waiting for a course. Plus any non-eating time was pleasantly occupied listening to the two musicians, blessedly under-amplified if anything. There's never a need to shout in this comfortable space.

But we all might scream for a banana bread ice cream sandwich. That's macadamia nut ice cream made in house amidst the perfectly moist yet integrally sound banana bread that will make you feel you're having something homemade at a stop on the road to Hana. Sure, why not drizzle some caramel, too.

Or end with another respectful take on a Hawaiian classic--pineapple upside-down bread pudding, suffused with a tequila sauce for some boozy oomph (no, it didn't remind of over-soaked rum cakes from my New Jersey youth--this was sophisticated). The bread pudding had a perfect sweet-savory, crunchy outside--creamy inside yin yang thing going.

Huihui ends up pretty much as magical as Maui itself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Norman Baits Diners with Summer Menu in Los Alamos

Given I’m all ears when I hear an establishment is featuring lots of corn on its new summer menu, I hightailed it up to Los Alamos to check out Norman. Housed in the Skyview Motel perched above the 101 — and if you park in the restaurant parking by their very own vineyard at the hill bottom, you will feel every foot of that elevation (but at least get very hungry) — Norman is a mid-century-modern gem offering California comfort food with exciting twists. As Chef Dustin Badenell, who among other places previously worked at the brilliant and missed Bear and Star, puts it, “I source products at the peak of their best to create dishes that you might not think pair properly but in fact do if used correctly.”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

St. Bibiana Is the New (Cindy) Black


Back in 2011, when chef Cindy Black opened The Blue Owl as a late-night pop-up inside Zen Yai on State Street, she’d joke, “Some nights, I’m Don Rickles with a vagina and a wok.” Eleven years later, upon opening St. Bibiana on West Ortega Street, she’s more like Louie Anderson with a vagina and a pizza oven.

You could say she’s mellowed, or maybe it’s just that the restaurant biz is very different when you’re 42 as opposed to 30. “Sometimes I don’t have the energy to give the customers hell even if they deserve it,” Black admits. “The fun banter at 30 I loved, and I miss the Blue Owl regulars and the fun chaos, but I don’t miss getting inebriated customers until four in the morning.”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

It's a Cinch to Want to Go to Finch & Fork

Many restaurants are taking the opportunity to come out of COVID (ok, let's pretend we are) with a reset, and no one has done that more seriously than Finch & Fork at the Canary Hotel. They've redone the room--say goodbye to the previous darker, wood, shuttered club feel and welcome lots of white, and sun, and video screens that run different modernist art prints. It's all very beach resort appropriate, if a bit generic, not that a dark, come-dine-in-my-library look is particularly novel, either.

The key is, you're going to be paying attention to the food and drink anyway. For as part of the reset, F&F has a new executive chef, Craig Riker, with a varied and storied resume (including Rustic Canyon, Patina, bassist for Deadsy) who locals will know from his time at plant-based Oliver's in Montecito. Now getting to play once again with any foodstuff he finds fascinating, Riker and his kitchen are hitting on all cylinders, doing what he claims is mom and grandma food, as read through his worldly travels as a touring musician. It's elevated comfort food, both because of his access to so much great produce and because of his skills. So imagine a deviled egg, and then a little raft of perfectly rendered pork belly atop, riding the wave of the creamy yolk. Now that's a bacon and egg bite.

We had the wonderful opportunity to taste through a good 60% of the dinner menu this week, and I'm not going to do a dish-by-dish recounting but do want to focus in on two items as exemplars of why you need to get yourself to F&F. And that's without talking about the three fine desserts (nothing like a banana cream pie style shake to awaken and appease your inner child), or the fine service that the charming Tim Thomas, Director of Food and Beverage, oversees, or the locally-focused beverage and cocktails list, put together by Santa Barbaran Jazz Moralez (how deliciously clever to come up with a Francesco Franceschi cocktail, of course botanical-forward, featuring green chartreuse, Fernet Branca, pineapple, lime, and chili threads for quite a kick). 

But then there's the hamachi crudo you get to see in the photo above (stolen from the F&F website, as lousy Blogger won't let me post my video) bathed in cucumber aquachile. A lesson in balance, this is. As flavorful as hamachi is, it's pretty darn delicate, so it's easy to have the amberjack swim away in a too powerful sauce or accompaniment. Not here. First, there's an itsy scoop of avo inside each swirled slice of sushi, its fat pushing the fat of the fish into yet more flavor. And that aquachile brings warmth more than heat, extending all the flavors with each taste. Those flavors include citrus to give the acid zip any dish needs, and then some jicama for just as much cooling sweetness as required. This could be a meal for me and I'd be happy.

Not that I wouldn't be happier with this scallop dish, too. Again, it's a dish--the components are meant to play well with each other (perhaps food is the only place anything does this anymore, alas). The scallops are scintillatingly seared so almost crispy, and just cooked to the center as you would hope. Then there's the Roman artichoke, shaved to only the tastiest parts, like a little thistle cone of delight. Or consider it the ice cream, as the cone is actually a wrap of Serrano ham, all porky-salty goodness. Add it up for a truly imaginative surf and turf. 

But then there's that risotto I would order all on its own. Calling out Acquerello as the brand of risotto isn't just for the mellifluous name--F&F serves you seven-year old rice because it cares and wants you to, too. And how bright and green it is, redolent of shallot and basil and Grana Padano and no doubt a bunch of great stock and sea salt. Fancy without any shmancy, homey without being homely.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Rooting Interests: A Roger Angell Appreciation


I can be assured I’ve been reading Roger Angell for nearly 45 years, as my copy of his Five Seasons, is inscribed 1978 and “Merry Christmas” from family friends. Now the book’s dust cover is ragged and ripped, and when I open it, it seems the pages are about to let loose from their binding. But I had to turn to it again, as Angell passed away May 20 at the astounding age of 101.

I’m not alone in admitting that Angell is no doubt one of the reasons I became a writer—FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe insightfully titled his moving tribute to him “Your Favorite Baseball Writer’s Favorite Baseball Writer.” But what a wonderful door opening into a writer’s world Angell provided—the elegance of his prose, his adult wit, his gimlet-eyed observational skills. He could regularly attest, in long-form New Yorker journalism collected every five years into books, his abiding love for a game I also adored, but one that awkward and gawky me would never be much good at it, so I needed another way in. Words were that way.

Care to read the rest then do so at The California Review of Books.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Bluewater Grill Renews Santa Barbara Ties


The steadily growing Bluewater Grill chain may be opening a new outpost every year — there are 10 so far from Catalina Island to Phoenix — but the goal for each restaurant is to stay grounded (or “sea-ed” perhaps?) in its region. The pandemic provided the opportunity to refocus that mission at our own Bluewater on Cabrillo Boulevard, which opened in 2018. Specifically, the restaurant hired new executive chef Alberto Torres, a 30-year Santa Barbara resident formerly at Hollister Brewing Company and Chuck’s Waterfront, as well as a new GM, Autumn Vaughn, a rising star in Bluewater’s ranks.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

I Left My Heart in Fizzy Pisco


It’s easy to go a bit mad considering mandarins. Clearly pulling apart tangerines from clementines from trademarked brands like Ojai Pixies and Cuties… well, it’s certainly not as easy as pulling apart the luscious segments from these oblate wonders of the citrus world. Actually, telling them apart has something to do with the roughness of the skin, and, of course, genetic crosses you’d have to be a botanist to bother about. But the best thing is many of us locally have a tangerine tree of some sort or know someone who does who is probably offering you fruit. Say thanks, and get cracking on this cocktail.

Care to read the rest then do at Edible Santa Barbara & Wine Country (they've even got a fancy new site for you).