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Farm finds home in Waikiki


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POSTED: Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's no reflection on the end of one year and the pending start of the new, but sometimes you have to look backward to go forward, and the Sheraton Waikiki has done that in a big way with Kai Market. I had heard about the restaurant when it opened in August, but didn't get to try it until attending the Hawaii Farm Bureau luncheon last week. I found myself returning for more.

Between you and me, it's a buffet, but shhh, don't let them know I told you. Staffers there prefer that you think of it as a food fair, akin to going to a farmers' market and sampling dishes made from fresh-picked produce. It differs from a farmers' market in that food from a stand is rarely this sumptuous.

They take freshness so seriously that those who come in for breakfast can get an omelet accented with herbs plucked directly from one of their “;living walls”; cloaked with growing herbs. At night, patrons are treated to Plantation Nights at Kai Market, with farm-to-table selections beautifully presented.

Although the farm-to-table concept has been a staple of high-end and boutique restaurants locally for more than 20 years, it's quite a breakthrough for a Waikiki restaurant of this size, with a capacity of 450.

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I think a lot of people would agree that dining in Waikiki can be a soulless experience. Menus catering to masses from abroad can tend to be generic and about as far from the farm as you could get. Supposedly, people come here on vacation for reprieve from everyday realities, and maybe it's too much to ask them to think about the relationship between food, the farm-versus-development debate and the future of humankind, but in return for serving some terrific dishes, Kai Market proposes that we all start to think about sustainability.

               

     

 

KAI MARKET

        Sheraton Waikiki » 921-4600

        Food ;*;*;*;*

        Service ;*;*;*;*

        Ambience ;*;*;1/2

        Value ;*;*;*

        Hours: Breakfast from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Prices: Breakfast $26 for adults, $13 children; dinner $49 adult, $26 child. Kamaaina receive 25 percent discount; children younger than 12 eat free with paying adult (one child per adult)

        Ratings compare similar restaurants:

        ;*;*;*;* - excellent

        ;*;*;* - very good

        ;*;* - average

        ;* - below average
       

» More photos are at www.hsblinks.com/1j9

       

 

       

It comes at a time when people are already more aware of the hazards and costs—physical as well as financial—involved with food supply and demand, and diners are asking more questions about where and how produce and livestock are raised. Recent fuel crises have also made us hyper-aware of the downsides of living on islands and waiting for most of food to be shipped in. The more we can feed ourselves, the better off we'll be in the future.

“;Sustainability”; is the buzzword at Kai Market, and executive chef Darren Demaya has set his sights on a menu that's 80 percent sustainable, made with local ingredients. He's currently at about 50 to 60 percent. Some things, of course, just can't be done. We can't grow wheat for flour, for instance, and he's not going to press his own olive oil, but it's good that he's giving thought to the many possibilities local farms do afford.

The bounty is so amazing that breakfasts feature Hamakua Farms mushroom frittatas, Molokai sweet potato hash browns and Big Island guava-glazed smoked pork and house-cured pipikaula. As for those Plantation Night dinners, there's a different menu for each of the seven nights of the week, with about nine hot selections per evening, plus a catch-of-the-day offering, carving station with alae salt-crusted prime rib, about nine cold/salad dishes and desserts. Bring a big appetite; otherwise there is no way you'll be able to try everything, and that will leave you very sad. You can check out the menus at http://www.sheraton-waikiki.com/ kaimarket.html.

Demaya, who grew up in Waimea, on the Big Island, and trained with Alan Wong, has a taste for local foods, so ethnic dishes like Chinatown look fun noodles with char siu and kim chee tako poke have the charm and authenticity of family potluck fare, just a bit more refined for the setting and price.

Quality ingredients don't require a lot of manipulation, and Demaya rightfully takes a light hand to dishes to emphasize freshness. My favorite Friday evening was crispy pan-fried hauupuu (Hawaiian sea bass) with a light red Thai curry lobster cream sauce that I had placed on the side—just in case. I loved it and wanted more. Luckily, that's possible with this “;food fair”; format.

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I actually didn't try many of the hot items. After prime rib, Singapore-style Manila clams, Kahuku shrimp scampi and Ewa plain red-skinned garlic mashed potatoes, I was getting pretty full, and I wanted to sample more of the salads, which aren't restricted to just veggies. This is where you'll also find your ahi poke, shrimp and mussel salad, and sashimi, alongside thin spears of Twin Bridge Waialua asparagus with roasted garlic, Kula strawberry and Waimanalo spinach salad and a selection of cheeses.

To date, Saturday night is shaping up to be the most popular, when snow crab legs with Big Island Meyer lemon-infused drawn butter are added to the carving station. Other Saturday night special offerings include Chinese salt-and-pepper head-on Kahuku shrimp (also available Tuesdays), iron skillet-steamed mussels with coconut Thai green curry sauce (also available Mondays) and, OK, not local, but who can resist Chesapeake Bay crab cakes? At least they're served with a Hamakua tomato-fennel marmalade.

Sunday's specialties include a Hawaii seafood paella, house-cured Kurobuta pork loin and five-spice roasted chicken. There's actually plenty to like any night of the week.

Just as there is an abundance of cultures represented in the cuisine, the dessert bar offers sweet treats inspired by seven cultures. These also differ by days, but you might find mochi, creme brulee, Portuguese sweetbread pudding or a kalamansi lime tartlet, the latter offered on Sundays. With dozens of other tartlets and Satura Cake selections available, my dining companion laughed when I simply made a beeline for a slice of the Ted's Bakery chocolate-haupia pie. Ain't nothing more local than that.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.