Hoku's has a new chef de cuisine and his fresh perspective, reflecting his Waipahu roots and passion for the ocean, has me reconsidering the 21-year old restaurant at the Kahala Hotel and Resort. While many of my friends love Hoku's, the food (and posh location) always seemed out of reach for me. But after a media tasting of Eric Oto's menu, I have a craving for more.
The best way to experience Oto's food is his tasting menu ($110 without wine pairings). It feels like a stroll down his personal memory lane, starting with an amuse bouche trio of two crispy fried handpole-caught fish and pipikaula smoked meat. They are memorable enough to be among your favorite bites of the meal.
Your first appetizer is a perfectly cooked day boat scallop crusted with mushroom and nori — a total umami flavor bomb — sitting on a dashi cauliflower espuma foam with tsukudani nori. I had to restrain myself from licking the bowl.
Your second appetizer looks like it came from the cubism exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art: a plate of ahi crudo dressed with Big Island hearts of palm, ponzu, scallion oil, buckwheat kernels, tsukemono pickles and wasabi tobiko. The plays on texture and spicy-sour punches make this another favorite.
By now you're beginning to see Oto's strong Japanese influence. But then comes the soup course: a delightfully creamy corn and leek bisque with slices of Kona abalone and pops of crispy lentils. The fresh local corn still has that summertime sweetness that plays up the abalone, which sits above the soup so it's not lost or overcooked in the broth. Drizzles of olive oil add a mild fruity flavor.
The shellfish raviolo is possibly the most photogenic of Oto's dishes. Large al dente raviolo rounds are stuffed with lumps of lobster and crab meat; on top is a sweet Makapuu shrimp from the Oceanic Institute, where he interned in high school. The sake butter with soy reduction makes for a rich and velvety sauce.
Although not on the tasting menu, the braised adobo osso bucco (beef shank) is available a la carte and a version with pork cheeks is on the $150 degustation menu. The adobo pork cheeks have a similar fork-tender quality to osso bucco when braised. The dish pays homage to Filipino colleagues Oto's worked with as well as his hometown of Waipahu. I would've preferred a stronger punch of vinegar but really liked the mung bean puree and crispy chicharron.
This was so comforting.
Hoku's pastry chef Michael Moorhouse prepared a beautiful platter with a delicate sudachi cheesecake on a wafer-thin speculoos cookie. Strawberry hibiscus sorbet and strawberry cubes formed blossoms on an abstract sakura cherry branch of balsamic gastrique. Moorhouse and Oto have worked together before — their careers overlapped at the Halekulani.
What I like best about the new menu is that it's approachable. Eating Oto's food makes you feel like you're meeting some of the people who have inspired his cooking. Yes, it's at the Kahala and yes, your place setting may have more tableware than your hands know what to do with. But on an haute level the food and flavors capture the essence of what it's like to grow up in Hawaii.
Hoku’s at The Kahala Hotel and Resort
5000 Kahala Ave.