100 years of Moana dining
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"The trees in the hotel garden are hung full of colored electric lights and there is ... music ... going on everywhere ... and in the dining room during dinner there is a woman who sits with her hands in her lap and not a scrap of music before her and sings piece after piece with the ease and naturalness of a bird."
Anne Goodwin Winslow
Honolulu, Nov. 14, 1908
By Kaui Philpotts
Advertiser Staff Writer
The hotel had been the dream of Honolulu businessman W.C. Peacock, whose family owned a beachfront home at the same spot. On that night, most of haute Honolulu dined on consomme with cheese straws, fillet of English sole a la Nantua, pommes Dauphin and larded tenderloin of beef.
Among the distinguished guests that night at the hotel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, were familiar Hawai'i names among the haole and hapa-haole elite: J.A. McCandless, Andrew Brown, Commodore Beckley, W.R. Farrington, Frank Hustace, R. O. Yardley, J.D. McInerny, F. E. Richardson and Charles Weight.
The guests sat at tables dressed with the hotel's signature silverware and starched white linens. While the orchestra played mazurkas and waltzes, the last course of Neapolitan ice cream, cakes and cafe noir were served. The hotel had been launched.
"They were definitely into heavy, traditional European cooking," said Ralf Bauer, executive chef of the hotel now called the Sheraton Moana Surfrider. Bauer and the hotel staff have planned a yearlong celebration of the hotel's first 100 years. High on the list is a series of dinners called "An Evening with the Chef," which debuts on April 21 with guest chef Daniel Thiebaut of the Big Island. But these will be contemporary menus, employing the bounty of fresh Island foods and local seafood, not the Eurocentric and Ü to our palates Ü rather strange combinations that were considered fine cuisine then.
The dinner that very first night was straight out of Escoffier and seems barely understandable to today's diner. Chef Bauer, who is himself classically trained, helped translate the menu.
Consomme with cheese straws may sound boring to us, but in 1901 it was the expected opener for a formal dinner, he said.
English sole a la Nantua is a dish in which the delicate fish was topped with a lobster sauce. One can only wonder how fresh the sole could have been in those pre-air freight days. The pommes Dauphin were potatoes stuffed with a rich filling and then dropped in hot oil to cook until they burst. The larded tenderloin was just that: a tenderloin of beef wrapped in fat to moisten and tenderize it.
"If we served those things and wrote the menus in the way they did then, no one would come," Bauer said with a chuckle.
But guests of the fashionable Moana at the turn of the century were wealthy and believed, along with much of the rest of the western world, that great food was French food. "The chefs in those days were more dictatorial and not as innovative," Bauer said. "In the last 15 years, especially, a chef has to look at what the guest wants to eat and provide a 'comfort zone' of food for many different tastes."
In looking over Moana menus from the past 100 years, it becomes clear how much the world situation has affected our ideas about what we eat. In September 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, the Moana menu stated, "In cooperation with the National Food Administration in Washington, this hotel will observe ... Tuesday Meatless, Saturday Porkless ... No meat will be served at breakfast."
In an attempt to reassure guests that the drinking water was safe, the menu announced that all water served was drawn from the hotel's own artesian well. There were signs, too, that the war had put a crimp in the European-style cuisine, and they were having to look locally for fish and produce. Poi cocktails were served as starters, for example, and the fish offering was uku, or gray snapper.
In that year, two wings were added to the hotel, and the now-famous central banyan tree, planted in 1904, was flourishing. The old pier jutted out into the surf in front of the hotel and remained there until 1930. Johnny Noble, the part-Hawaiian bandleader who had become a hotel fixture, posed his band out on the Moana pier for publicity pictures.
By the 1930s, the hotel had become the Moana-Seaside Hotel and Bungalows. The top-of-the-line room on the American plan (with meals) cost $15 per day. "Hawaii Calls," the radio program that broadcast the sound of the pounding surf every Saturday across the Mainland, began serving a buffet lunch under the banyan tree. Webley Edwards emceed, bandleader and composer Harry Owens wrote the theme song, Al Kealoha Perry and his Singing Surfriders played music and Hilo Hattie cavorted for the crowds of diners.
Just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Moana Hotel offered Christmas dinner and a concert for a mere $2 per person. The next week it was a New Year's dinner and dance for $5. But those carefree days weren't to last for long.
|This is what the Moana's dining room looked like around 1911-1920, when most guests preferred heavy, traditional European food.
"By order of the Foreign Funds Control Office, only the Hawaiian Series of United States currency can be accepted in the dining room," the menu read. The famous Moana Fish Chowder made its first appearance, as did patriotic American pot roast with corn fritters, Queen Anne cherries (canned, no doubt), blackberry pie and fruit Jell-O Ü food intended to make the new (and less-sophisticated) guests feel at home in an uncertain world.
After the war and during the 1950s and '60s, the influence of European-trained hotel chefs was still strong. Nonlocal ingredients were easily brought in by ships belonging to Matson Navigation Co., then owners of the hotel. Menus featured the continental classics of the day (chicken cordon bleu and its cousins) with a few Island touches Ü notably pineapple garnishes and papaya at breakfast.
By the end of the 1970s and into the early '80s, however, visitors to Hawai'i had changed. They became more sophisticated; they had traveled the world and acquired a taste for more exotic flavors. Many wanted the healthier, lighter foods introduced by the nouvelle cuisine and health food movements here and in Europe. Young American chefs, some Island-born, began to notice local-style foods and ease them on to menus in more sophisticated versions. Regional cooking and Asian fusion were the fashion, and Hawai'i was in the forefront.
When the Moana Hotel reopened after a comprehensive restoration in 1989, the chef tried to put an old classic dish back on the menu: Eggs Volga was a heavy concoction of poached ham, poached eggs and bearnaise sauce on wheat toast, and the guests, used to the more contemporary Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine, rejected the vintage dish hands down.
Dining today is fashion, and chef Bauer stresses the need for hotels and restaurants to respond quickly to changes in tastes. And the business has changed, with a narrower profit margin and more casual style, even in the formal dining room.
Hotels have a special challenge: Unlike free-standing restaurants, which can cater to a niche and feature a particular style, hotels are homes away from home. They must provide a wide range in their menus, with simple, plain dishes for those who are a bit cuisine-weary or who have conservative tastes, as well as more venturesome approaches for their signature dining rooms.
Hawai'i is a paradise for chefs, Bauer said, because people here are so willing to try different cuisines, having grown up in a multicultural environment.
But, he said, while the structured menus of those old-style European hotel chefs may be gone, when you sit on the veranda above the Banyan Court and sniff the inviting smells from the kitchen, you know some things haven't changed: the ambience of an old and grand hotel.