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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 13, 2004

'New Hilo' dining has eclectic menus, favorite grinds

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Travel Editor

Hilo Bay Cafe's executive chef Joshua Kentner, 26, has created a menu aimed at healthy eating with" a few really rich items."

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

HILO, Hawai'i — People go to Hilo for the flowers and the farmers' market, the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, the easy access to Volcano Village and the Hamakua Coast, the homey hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Now here's another attraction: Food — from fine dining that rivals big-city sophistication to down-home 'onolicious grinds that make you nostalgic for the days when no one was counting carbs, fats or anything but how many scoops of rice you got.

While covering the Merrie Monarch hula competition this spring, I indulged in a hurried but memorable culinary tour. Here's my taste of Hilo:

Hilo Bay Café, 315 Maka'ala; 935-4939.

When I called my friend Randal Nunokawa to ask where we should eat in Hilo, I could hear the excitement in his voice as he suggested the newest thing: Hilo Bay Café, owned and operated by Kim Snuggerud and Russell Ruderman of Island Naturals (a natural-foods store and deli also in the Waiakea Center, off Highway 11 on Maka'ala Street).

Once you pass through its smoked glass doors, the Café belies its mall setting with sleek, contemporary decor and a menu that wouldn't look out of place in L.A. or New York. Nunokawa, who works with many chefs in his job arranging noncredit courses for UH-Hilo, guided me through his menu favorites and introduced me to chef Josh Kentner, a 26-year-old Mainland transplant who followed his Hawai'i-born girlfriend home. The two live in Hilo now and are expecting their first child.

Kentner landed a job at Island Naturals and then was asked to open the café. "Pretty much our philosophy is as healthy as possible," he said, then paused and smiled a little roguishly. "But there are always a few really rich items, too."

This explained the rather eclectic menu: There was an appetizer special of foie gras with glazed apples and a roast chicken breast infused with the flavor of smoked bacon ($12) but vegan entrees are also standard (coconut tofu kebabs, $8; grilled eggplant Napoleon, $9). A burger is always available (the Blue Bay, with blue cheese on an onion bun with garlic fries, $8) but you can also pick gently at an avocado and tomato salad with a memorable mint-flax seed dressing ($8).

Most of the entrees are $12 or less (including accompaniments, such as rice, fries or potatoes). A lot of regulars make a meal of the flaky-crust pot pie (vegan or chicken, $8); the crust is Kentner's mom's recipe. "It took me years to get that recipe out of her and then it turned out it wasn't the recipe, it was the technique, and it took me years to get that," he said with a laugh.

The produce is local and organically grown whenever possible, the meats are free-range, raised without hormones or antibiotics in the feed. The reason for this isn't just politics. It's that local, organic, seasonal food is "so much better and fresher and you don't have to add a bunch of stuff to cover up any flaws," said Kentner. "I'm not trying to mask anything with my menus. Let the tomato speak for itself."

I've only been to Hilo Bay Café twice but I miss it. If this restaurant was in Honolulu, I'd be a regular because the restaurant is doing something well that no one here is even attempting — creating a nexus where healthy natural foods and well-chosen specialty foods meet and make magic.

Kentner changes the menu often. Maitre'd Darren Sakai skillfully suggests the right wines for the dishes. The restaurant also does take-out.

Hours: lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily except Sundays; light afternoon menu 2 to 5 p.m. daily except Sundays; dinner 5 to 8:30 p.m. daily.

Nori's Saimin & Snacks, 688 Kino'ole, Suite 124; 935-9133.

I first tasted Beth-An Nishijima's food at a Taste of Hilo event several years ago and was intrigued enough to persevere through a frustrating half-hour of circling Hilo's one-way streets trying to find the restaurant itself, which is in a strip mall set perpendicular to the street, so there's no sign visible. I still routinely get lost looking for Nori's, but the food and chaotic but welcoming atmosphere are worth the drive-time. (Hint: It's between Kukuau and Hualualai streets on Kino'ole; look for an anonymous sort of driveway next to Bamboo Garden). Beth-An, by the way, is one-half of the "Two Skinny Chefs" of TV cooking-show fame.

Nori's is best visited when you're famished beyond belief, or partying with a group of friends. The servings are generous and there's so much on the menu that you need multiple orderers to prevent indecision paralysis. It's also a good place to do some omiyage shopping with a range of house-made products from chili oil to fresh kakimochi. If there's fresh chocolate mochi cake, buy it!

Specialties include whole fried fish plate lunch ($7.25 to $8.25, with mullet and other fish), a world of noodle dishes (saimin, won ton min, ramen, Okinawan soki soba, fried noodles), sizzling platters (such as sizzling salmon and tsukemono steak, $8.25), and the Big Plate ('ahi tempura, fired noodles, kal-bi ribs, teri beef, teri chicken, musubi, mac salad, $17.95; plus 50 cents if you take it out). Do not order the Big Plate unless your guest is Konishiki or you have a refrigerator back in your room (we snacked on this one for two days and still had to discard part of it).

Hours: Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Mondays l1:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to midnight (closed 3 to 4 p.m.). Nori's used to stay open late during Merrie Monarch but has resumed regular hours because they're so busy all day catering for halau and making up omiyage orders. There's a huge rush just before closing time on Merrie Monarch nights.

Kuhio Grille, Prince Kuhio Plaza; 959-2236.

This little local-style restaurant spills out onto tables on the sidewalk outside and is pretty much packed all the time but especially early and late. It is another spot that's a bit hard to find (from Kanoelehua, Highway 11, go up the hill on E. Maka'ala, and it's a block or so up in a strip mall on the right). It's also packed at Merrie Monarch time and you can spot hula halau hefting bags of takeout back to their practice sessions.

Sam and Nellie Araki's place is famous for the generous breakfasts, the exceptionally good fried rice (claim to fame: originator of the fried-rice loco) and the legendary one-pound laulau plates ($6.95 for one pork and beef or chicken laulau, two scoops rice and macaroni salad, all the way up to the Kanak Atak Hawaiian plate with laulau, kalua pig, lomi salmon, pickled onions, haupia, rice and poi for $14.95). Order at the counter and be sure to score a dessert, because these sell out fats. This is another spot for omiyage shopping as they sell frozen laulau packed for travel. I love the K.G. Crispy Korean Chicken ($7.25) and another K.G. specialty, the taro corned beef hash ($6.25).

Hours: 6 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.

Café Pesto, 308 Kamehameha Ave.; www.cafepesto.com; 969-6640.

My idea of a lovely evening is Café Pesto's Sesame Crusted Big Island Baked Goat Cheese — an eggplant, tomato and spinach salad topped with tangy, warmed goat cheese ($10.95) — a glass of merlot and the time to savor both while checking out the other patrons. Or is the Hibachi-style Chicken Risotto my favorite ($10.95 light or $17.95 full-meal size)? Kinda depends on what the grilled fresh catch is that day (market price).

There's generally a lively crowd to observe, many of them regulars, from nouveau-hippie pareau-and-dreadlocks types chomping tofu poke ($10.95) to representatives of the gentleman-farmer class that's moving in on the Hamakua Coast ordering Pizza Luau (with kalua pork, sweet onions and pineapple, $9.95, $16.95). Café Pesto began life as a small takeout pizza spot in Kawaihae (there's still a Cafe Pesto there); this outlet opened in the renovated S. Hata Building in 1992. Despite the dressed-up look and sit-down atmosphere, the restaurant remains faithful to its roots as a comfortable place that's happy to serve visitors but whose core clientele is local.

Though several new fine-dining restaurants have opened in Hilo, I'll always make time for Café Pesto because it's absolutely reliable, the prices are reasonable, and the beautiful high-ceilinged, many-windowed vintage space is a delight.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Itsu's Fishing Supplies aka Da Shave Ice Place, 810 Pi'ilani; 935-8082.

Just across the street from the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium and a block off the Kanoelehua (Highway 11, the Hawai'i Belt Road), the nearly 30-year-old Itsu's is one of those places that only locals know about, through some word-of-mouth method that completely bypasses the guidebooks. The day I dropped in, having been given the tip by a Big Island friend, I ran into a bunch of O'ahu folks who were slurping Itsu's famous "ice shave" (as Hilo folks call it) and bugging one of the Itsu family about the lack of colored popcorn, a mandatory omiyage for many folks visiting Hilo ($2.50-$4.50 a bag).

At lunchtime, the line snakes through the store from the screen door past the catering counter to the cash register, with patrons eyeing the specials handwritten on a board. The roast pork I ordered was so flat-out delicious that I went back the next day and was crushed that it wasn't on the menu.

Itsu's steamed 80-cent hot dogs win local awards every year. But Itsu's most famous invention is the gravy burger ($1; $1.25 with kim chee), just about as bizarre and homely a concoction as I've ever encountered. I watched eagerly as the guy used a pair of tongs to pick up a thin, pre-steamed hamburger patty, drag it through a container of warm gravy and plop it on an unadorned bun, adding a dollop of kim chee before cramming the top on and wrapping it expertly in paper. The result is a layered taste and texture experience that encompasses greasy, salty, pungent, pillowy, odd and good.

Hours: 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

I Restaurant Kaikodo, 60 Keawe St. (at Waianuenue in Hilo); www.restaurantkaikodo.com; 961-2558.

Kaikodo personifies everything that's right with The New Hilo: Owned by Asian art experts Howard and Mary Ann Rogers, who divide their time between their New York gallery and their Hamakua spread, furnished with antiques and collectibles in keeping with the Toyama Building's historic roots as a mercantile center and Masonic Hall, the kitchen presided over by a James Beard Award-winning chef, Michael Fennelly, who now makes his home in rural Puna.

The menu is characteristic of Fennelly's approach as seen in his cookbook "East Meets Southwest," except that now it's "East Meets Mid-Pacific" with dishes such as barbecue oysters with spicy Korean sauce and pancetta; Chicken Under a Lava Rock, flavored with Chinese black vinegar and served over coconut sticky rice; tamarind 'ahi poke and togarashi fries (from Fennelly's own togarashi recipe, incorporating lemon rind, sesame seeds, chilies and furikake).

Produce for the restaurant comes from the Rogers' Onomea farm as well as the local farmers' markets, and Fennelly selects fish from local suppliers. The exquisitely designed restaurant is a light-filled space of white and crimson incorporating a 19-foot mahogany bar from England, 100-year-old cut-glass doors from an upper-class Chinese home, a Chinese gentleman's bedchamber, and a wine cellar fashioned from the bank's vault. It has quickly become popular, especially among the transplanted gentleman farmers and second-home millionaires who are buying up land around Hilo, and with guidebook-wielding visitors. Prices range from $5 to $10 for starters, $19-$24 for entrees.

Hours: lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10"30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch.

Café 100 (969 Kilauea) and Ken's House of Pancakes (1730 Kamehameha) are worth at least a mention here, but I'm assuming everybody knows about them. Café 100 is famous for loco moco and for really innovative plate lunch ideas. Ken's claim to fame is, well, pancakes, but also loco mocos and anykine local-style plate, especially at breakfast. I also like Verna's III Drive-Inn (1765 Kamehameha) for late-night, just-pau-Merrie-Monarch, only-like-eat-and-sleep meals, especially the fried chicken with gravy ("If no can, no can; if can, Verna's.").

Big Island Candies, 585 Hinano St.; www.bigislandcandies.com; (800) 935-5510 (corner of Hinano and Kekuanoa, which is the road that dead-ends at the airport).

This isn't a restaurant, but you aren't allowed to leave Hilo without visiting Big Island Candies' well-designed shop and manufacturing plant; I think they turn you back at the gate if you're not carrying a distinctive lavender-accented carrying box. There's a coffee and ice cream bar, and you can watch the workers making candies and enjoy generous samples while you shop. This year, while shopping for omiyage, I came across an item so decadent that I have craved it ever since: Almond Wafer Crunch, a light, sweet, nutty, crunchy wafer covered with milk chocolate. Oh, mercy. One box never made it home.

This 27-year-old company is strictly a class act. Theirs is arguably the most beautiful packaging in the Islands, and the exceptionally high-quality confections draw thousands of repeat visitors each year. If you go to Merrie Monarch, don't wait until Sunday to buy your gifts or you'll be fighting crowds. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 365 days a year.