As the sun set on Waikiki, the rest of our table, some 20 diners, received their pupu
, appetizer, before Lisa and me. It wasn't that the courteous servers at Hula Grill
hadn't tried to place the dish they called "Smoked Big Island Abalone BLT" in front of us. More than one server tried. "No," we said again and again, shaking our heads. "We ordered vegetarian."
I've perfected a lifetime of disappointment by way of resigned acceptance when my vegetarian ways are "accommodated" at restaurants from East Coast to West and most especially in my homeland of middle America. That is, I don't expect much.
It's not like I'm making some political or environmental or ethical statement. (At least, it didn't start out that way.) I simply don't like beef, pork or poultry. Never have. Not even as a baby. And, for decades, I didn't like vegetables, either. You would be rightly accurate to say I was a picky eater. My poor mother.
Finally, our specially-prepared dish arrived, handmade by the sous chef himself, Matt, who also delivered it to our table. A simple platter of tomatoes and fern shoots on slices of toasted baguette bread topped with bits of feta cheese. "What do you think?" he asked. "Is feta O.K.? Do you do dairy?"
"It's fine," I said. The dish didn't have to be perfect. I was just happy that the restaurant had even offered a vegetarian menu for the farm-to-table dinner that would raise over $800 on behalf of Paepae o He'eia
, an organization committed to restoring an ancient fishpond on Oahu's North Shore.
He must have read something in my face. Or Lisa's. "I can do it over without the feta," he said.
There were a total of three people who opted for the vegetarian menu last night. Out of 100. Three percent. I wonder how that compares to the percentage nationwide?
We convinced Matt a little feta was fine, but we accepted his offer to prepare the rest of our dishes in a vegan manner--all plant-based, no dairy, no eggs, no meat. He seemed eager to do so. Probably because he had a few tricks up his sleeve that he wanted to try on us. And let me say right here: They worked.
The farm-to-table dining experience isn't new. Not even for Hawaii, way out in the middle of the Pacific. In fact, it can be said the locavore movement started here 20+ years ago when 12 local chefs founded what's come to be known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Most of those chefs are household names in Hawaii today--Sam Choy, Mark Ellman, Beverly Gannon, Peter Merriman, Alan Wong, and Roy Yamaguchi. In fact, last night, Alan Wong was holding his own farm-to-table dinner.
But what made Hula Grill's farm-to-table dinner different, in my mind, is that the oceanfront restaurant is part of a chain--owned by TS Restaurants, operating numerous other restaurants in Hawaii and California with recognizable names like Duke's, Keoki's Paradise, and Sandy's Beach Grill--and not anchored by a celebrity chef. Chef Paul Rivero is probably not a name you recognize. Unless a) you're related to him; or b) went to school with him, which in Hawaii is a good possibility. But I don't know where Chef Paul was raised or went to school, because I was too busy asking sous chef Matt, who was dedicated to us veg-heads, all kinds of questions. Like how did he make such a simple dish of tomatoes and greens on bread taste so dang good? Because it was good. Beyond good. The answer: He smoked the tomatoes. Smoked them.
The fact that Hula Grill Waikiki hosted a farm-to-table dinner illustrates just how far the movement has come. Showcasing local growers, fishers and providers is practically mainstream. (Well, main stream would be McDonald's, I suppose. Maybe Applebee's. Give it time.)
There was Kahuku sea asparagus, Kaiulani Spice's exotic curry, Kona coffee spices, Maui onions, Mauna Loa mac nuts, Hawaiian Heart of Palm, sweet potatoes from Twin Bridge Farms, banana and papaya amber glaze from North Shore Hawaiian Honey Bee, Nalo Farms micro arugula, Hamakua Farms tomatoes. Each of the five courses was even paired with a locally made beverage from Koloa Rum and Aloha Beer Company.
The dish that I quietly tried to weasel the recipe out of Matt was the gnocchi, made with roasted kabocha and potato that Matt finished in the sautee pan and served with asparagus, fern shoots and mushrooms. This dish appears on the nightly menu--with a cream sauce. Order it, I say, order it. Hurry.
Thanks to my experience at Hula Grill, I've suddenly got a new attitude about making special dietary requests when I eat out. I've realized I'm not the only one. I'm no longer the odd ball. There are people with gluten intolerances. Peanut allergies. Dairy discomfort. And life-threatening shellfish allergies. All requesting--and receiving--special treatment, even their own menus.
What's more, I think Matt enjoyed the challenge. Lisa and I were Matt's creative culinary opportunity. We broke up his daily routine in the kitchen and gave him permission to try something different. We gave him an opportunity to flex his culinary skills. And, based on the results, be forewarned, Matt, I'm coming back.