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One of Kauai’s nicknames is the Garden Isle, and rightfully so. The land is so fertile and the climate is so conducive to growth that fresh, fabulous crops thrive throughout the island. The waters surrounding Kauai are plentiful with island fish, and area farmers keep restaurants supplied with flavorful beef, lamb and pork.
In addition to Kauai’s natural bounty, the island is culturally diverse and rich with ethnic food options — the result is a destination with great dining options.
On my most recent visit, I tested out four relatively new eateries which quickly earned my hearty approval and then revisited an old haunt that never lets me down. Here are my current five favorite restaurants on Kauai.
Near the town of Lihue awaits Kilohana Plantation, the 35-acre former plantation manager’s estate which has been turned into a multi-faceted attraction. The centerpiece is a restored 16,000-square-foot 1936 mansion, and that’s where you’ll find 22 North.
The restaurant’s tables are arranged around three sides of a courtyard, providing lovely views out to the pastures and trees of the estate. All of the seating is outside but covered and protected, and the light from four flickering fire pits casts pretty patterns on the old building. It feels like you’re dining in someone’s classic Tudor-style home.
The farm-to-table philosophy is in full evidence here. Chefs work with over 100 fruits and vegetables grown in Kilohana’s gardens, and they collaborate with Kauai farmers to bring diners island-pastured meat. There’s even a mixologist on hand who creates unique, seasonal drinks using the estate’s herbs — a kind of ‘farm-to-bar’ approach to cocktails.
I made a great choice by starting with the tangy olive poppers — a plate of Kauai chevre-stuffed olives accompanied by house-smoked bacon and tomato vinaigrette. I am now officially a big fan of the 22 North Salad, which takes romaine, bacon and smoked provolone and graces them with lemon-parmesan dressing and a soft poached egg. For entrees, my vote goes to the ultra-tender grilled local pork chop with baby Kilohana beet greens, mountain apple chutney and herb polenta — a dish as enticing as its setting.www.22northkauai.com
For special occasions on the island, nothing tops Kauai Grill, located in the St. Regis Princeville Resort. On one side of the dining room, a wall of windows showcases appetizing views of Hanalei Bay and the mountains beyond, and sunset vistas whet the appetite for the meal to come.
The restaurant’s interior is equally beautiful, but without the stuffiness I normally associate with high-end restaurants. It’s an intimate setting, with booths and tables where couples huddle together and small groups recount their day’s adventures. A spiraling, lit fabric ceiling is fashioned in the shape of a nautilus shell, and spilling down from its center is a handcrafted fiber optic and ruby glass hibiscus chandelier. A variety of woods add to the warmth and flair of the dining room.
If anything can outdo the setting of Kauai Grill, it’s the food, crafted by Michelin award-winning chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Working with the highest quality of meats and freshest local fish available, he tends toward simply-grilled preparations accompanied by bold condiments. A perfect example is the magnificent hapuupuu (Hawaiian sea bass), enlivened with tangy Malaysian chili sauce and Thai basil — as good as any entree I have ever tasted, anywhere. I love the rice cracker-crusted bigeye ahi tuna with citrus-chili sauce, and I give additional kudos to the sour cream cheesecake with pineapple, mango and passion sorbet.
Don’t wait for a special occasion to go to Kauai Grill. It’s ready to make every night a standout.www.kauaigrill.com
Nanea Restaurant and Bar
Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas opened on Kauai’s north shore in 2008 and, with it, came Nanea, led by executive chef Kahau Manzo. Nanea features intimate indoor seating with floors of rich wood, as well as casual al fresco tables looking out to the resort’s pool, manicured lawns and tiki torches.
For me, the natural setting of Kauai’s North Shore — with its soaring waterfall-laced mountains, great swaths of green space and vast ocean views — has always inspired a sense of health and well-being. Nanea follows suit with its emphasis on the use of super foods like spinach, tomatoes, blueberries, wild salmon and avocados. Was it my imagination, or did I truly feel a bit more robust after finishing my salad of strawberries, blueberries, feta cheese, spinach, macadamia nuts and balsamic vinaigrette?
Chef Manzo is equally passionate about supporting Hawaii vendors, and his buy local, eat local approach can be tasted in such offerings as tomato basil bruschetta with Kunana Farms goat cheese and Kailani Farms greens; risotto with Hamakua Farms funghi; and Kauai Coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin, accompanied by a terrific ginger-hoisin jus. In addition, guests can try Nanea’s vegan and vegetarian menus, accompanied by wines from around the world.
The word Nanea has several different translations, like “of absorbing interest,” “enjoyable” and “tranquility.” All three of these terms do justice to this satisfying restaurant, worthy of multiple visits.www.westinprinceville.com
Josselin’s Tapas Bar and Grill
I love to graze, so the concept of tapas — little plates with small portions — is right up my alley. It gives diners the chance to savor lots of different flavors. Thankfully, Jean-Marie Josselin — one of the originators of Hawaii Regional Cuisine — recently brought this idea to south Kauai, and it works beautifully.
Located in the new Kukuiula Village complex in Poipu, Josselin’s Tapas offers a clean, crisp Asian-inspired decor with wheel-like woven hanging lanterns, highlights of bamboo and dark wood and a glowing orange light frame above the bar.
While tapas are a Spanish concept, Josselin’s food is decidedly Asian fusion with Hawaiian overtones. The open kitchen features a wood-burning oven, the source of such tasty offerings as naan bread — served with garlic confit and yogurt cucumber dressing — and 36-hour-braised pork belly, accompanied by julienned apple kimchi and rosemary orange Kauai honey.
You can go the raw route by ordering the ahi poke and sashimi sampler with Maui onion vinaigrette; munch on island-grown ingredients with the Kauai portabella pucks in spicy garlic sauce; or focus on seafood, including seared blackened ono with heirloom rice and pineapple salsa. But whatever you order, don’t dine at Josselin’s Tapas alone. The more people in your party, the greater your culinary opportunities. As the menu states, “The whole process is about sharing.”
Whenever I’m on Kauai, I make a point of going to this barebones family-run Lihue landmark, open since 1951. It almost always has a waiting line of locals who know a good thing when they see one — testimony to the high quality and low prices of this noodle soup shop.
Seating is strictly at low U-shaped counters, a configuration that makes it easy to strike up a conversation with diners on either side of you or across the aisle. You can peer straight into the kitchen, where a hard-working chef who looks like someone’s auntie is busy straining homemade noodles, pouring broth and adding the likes of won ton, sweet roasted pork, luncheon meat, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and teriyaki barbecue sticks to the mix.
On my most recent visit, the patron next to me ordered a fat slice of lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie for dessert and, happily, I followed suit. The combination of sweet and tart melted in my mouth and danced on my tongue, topping off yet another satisfying visit to the best little hole-in-the-wall on the island. It’s a true taste of local color.
Hamura Saimin makes it easy to visit by opening early and closing late, with Friday and Saturday hours until midnight. Look for it down a side street in Lihue town. If you can’t find it, odds are that any local you find will be able to navigate.
What’s Your Favorite?
Dining is subjective, so this list of Kauai favorites may likely change the next time I go back. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from our readers. What are your favorite places to grab a bite on Kauai?