Thursday, April 8, 2010

Food Field Trip Hawaii: Chapter 3 (Merriman's)

My favorite dining experience on Big Island (two years in a row) was not what I would have imagined; it's not a classic eatery on the coast with the sun gently setting, but instead a place located in the gateway to the mountainous (and rainy) side of the island: Merriman’s.

Peter Merriman pioneered the local sustainable food movement on Big Island a few decades ago. Pioneered is the operative word given Merriman’s location in Waimea, the home of the historic Parker Ranch, whose rustic green pastures look like they belong in the Western U.S. Back in 1988 when opening Merriman's, Peter Merriman was described as "a gourmet in cowboy country." Still true today.

Waimea is 10-15 degrees colder than the leeward coast and it rains a lot. But we were lucky enough to follow a rainbow up from the coast, and the pot of gold at the end was worth it! Merriman’s excels not only at the local sourcing of nearly its entire food menu but in ambiance, service, wine selection, and the dishes themselves.

Before you walk in, there's a an adjacent garden containing everything from bananas to tomatoes. The arched room, open kitchen, and indoor herb garden are quite soothing. There is some minimal island flair; petroglyph candles (above) adorn each table, offset by white linens and nice stemware.

The waitstaff are some of the best I have encountered anywhere. Immensely knowledgeable, helpful, enthusiastic, and yet unobtrusive. We began with the mai tai I previously reviewed. After hearing the extensive specials we decided to sample as much as possible and ordered both an appetizer and a salad to share. We also let our server select a white wine to go with the appetizer and a red for the main courses, and she chose well.

These tarot fritters were very good, but not great. They needed more of the promised jalapeno kick, but the accompanying goat cheese, beats, and goat cheese fondue really made the dish click.

Next, we devoured olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressed local tomatoes and Maui onions. This was our first taste of farm-fresh tomatoes since last fall and we savored every bit of this dish (not pictured).

Look at how beautiful this entrée is. This was one of the evening’s specials, a Hawaiian swordfish served over a pea risotto offset with plump clams and fresh tomatoes in a beurre blanc sauce. The fish was moist, tender, and wonderful. I love this particular fish and though I had a great cut at Dino a few months back, this particular preparation was the best I have ever tasted, a notch even above Dino's.

B also opted for the special, but chose to stay on land. He went with the local lamb prepared two ways: an exotic Hungarian style, and classic lamb shoulder in a rich pan sauce. The dish was accompanied by a custard. Together the elements were rich and tender and really, a fitting way to showcase the varied flavors and textures of the lamb. As a side note, a few nights earlier I was disappointed to learn--given the relatively extensive local product available--that the Jean Georges Kauai Grill sources their lamb from Australia!

This picture of dessert is underwhelming, but the taste was anything but. The quality of chocolate in this "Fallen Souffle" was incredible, and the oozing texture and classic vanilla ice cream was classic. Our waitress candidly told us that the souffle is considered 'fallen' so as not to require 30+ minutes of baking time.

This was a great experience, and one which we almost skipped owing to the 25-minute drive from the Kohala coast. If you can get to Merriman's, you will not be disappointed. Reservations are recommended if not essential. Dinner for two with a split mai tai, two glasses of wine each, appetizer, salad, two entrees, dessert, tax, and tip was $195. Merriman's also has locations on Kauai and Maui.

Merriman's on Urbanspoon

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