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Kauai Bliss: Find Your Bliss on the Magical Garden Isle

Best of Kauai Restaurants

Hawaii in general is often thought of as not offering great food and being expensive. Kauai will erase that thought from your mind in the first bite if you choose well. I made it my personal mission to search for local produce on restaurant tables and to meet both the chefs preparing it and the farmers growing it.

While it's true the food in Hawaii isn't overly budget friendly, the quality and diversity make up for it. I'm a picky eater and found a mouth-watering array of fantastic meals that delighted me from head to toe on Kauai. Then again, I had a few expensive, mediocre mistakes as well. Follow in my feeding frenzy footsteps for the best and brightest lights of Kauai Island fare.

Bar Acuda

The bastion of hip on the North Shore, Bar Acuda is the place to be. The vibe is San Francisco cool meets open air Hawaii laid back which makes perfect sense given chef/owner Jim Moffat's San Francisco restaurant roots. The food is tapas style and Moffat uses local produce and ingredients in delicious abundance. The stylish ambience primes you for the equally stylish food, each small plate a gem of innovative and well balanced art.

The menu changes often given Moffat's passion for locally grown and produced ingredients, which makes it fun to go back again and again. Tomatoes in season? Try the amazing bruschetta which is unlike any I've ever seen. The tomatoes are roasted and charred whole, then smashed on lovely home baked bread with garlic and herbs. The small plates mean you aren't limited to one impossible choice, rather you can try several delectable options. The honeycomb from the north shore with local Kunana Farms goat cheese, Mizuna greens and apples showcases the simplicity and sensibility of the menu, letting the stars shine for what they are.

The wine list is expertly chosen and also changes often. The wait staff is well versed in wine and food pairings, which is really half the fun. With the flavors of small plates ranging widely, the wine depends on the staff to keep up, and they do it very well.

One of my favorite things about this warm and inviting culinary heaven is the open kitchen, where Moffat and his engaging crew work elbow to elbow around a big wooden center table, calling out orders and playful banter with equal weight. Moffatt mans the wood burning oven and turns out perfect discs one after the other with fresh, local toppings in creative combinations. The kitchen is so well run and the staff so happy that there is plenty of room around the edges of the demands of a first class restaurant for the staff and owner to have a good time, which just makes it that much more fun to be there. On my recent visit, the friendly diner next to me who looked like he was part of the Bar Acuda "family" turned out to be one of the main fish suppliers for the restaurant, supplying much of their daily catch. This is what it's all about there, and both the food and the personality of the place exudes it.

Tables outside are lovely, on a wide porch with an outlook over charming Hanalei town. Inside feels more like a hip San Francisco vibe but with laid back ease. If you want to be where the action is, sit inside.
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Kauai Grill

The lovely Kauai Grill, the upscale restaurant at the St. Regis Princeville, delighted and surprised me at every turn. The experience begins the moment you pass through gorgeous glass doors filled with pressed red flowers and are treated to Hanalei Bay framed in big picture windows. Most tables and sexy curvy booths are thoughtfully arranged to soak it in. Chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Carlos George use as much locally grown produce and ingredients as possible, creating a menu filled with interesting choices. Luckily the food is so good it can compete with the stunning view.Not to be missed is the signature Ginger Margarita, with locally grown ginger and lime juice and a zingy zip which will make every other margarita seem boring forever more.

One of my favorite dishes I've ever had the good fortune to enjoy was Thomas Keller's fresh pea soup at the French Laundry in Yountville, CA. To my delight, Kauai Grill had it's rival on the menu and I'm pretty sure I licked the bowl when no one was looking. Of course, the service is so spot on and attentive that it surely didn't go unnoticed. The bright green pea soup still dances in my mind like a happy melody about a magical garden. Extra yummy indeed. The locally grown peas were both pureed to velvet perfection and liberally included whole and crunchy. There was just enough salt to make the peas pop but to let them be their perfect pea selves.

You know you are somewhere special when the cherry tomatoes in an amuse bouche are peeled, as if they've slipped into something more comfortable to greet you. The dishes that followed were equally lovely, including chicken samosas packed with flavor and satisfaction, and a beet salad with caramelized macadamia nuts and a creamy lemon yogurt dressing which complimented the peppery watercress perfectly.

Kukui's at the Kauai Marriott

Chef Guy Higa is the personality and the creative juice at the Marriott. The food is inventive, gorgeous to look at and a consistent home run. Higa also makes every effort to use as much local produce as possible, weaving traditional recipes in with sophisticated trends. Take for example coconut glazed Molokai sweet potatoes, baked to heavenly perfection. My focus was on locally grown produce, so I was treated to a sampling of some of Higa's veggie highlights. My taste buds were delighted, my inner foodie snob impressed and my picky eater satisfied. Now that's saying something.

My tasting of Higa's range included roasted kabocha pumpkin with pumpkin seed pesto, Kauai figs, strawberries and pineapple (the berries grown in Higa's own garden) with marscapone cheese, lovely little baby green beans with a peanut tofu dip, roasted orange and red beets with a tahini yogurt sauce, watermelon peel kim chi for a surprise delight and grilled turnips with scallions. I watched Guy pluck the fat little turnip from his own garden and was utterly tickled to see it on my plate. Higa supplies the Marriott with almost all of it's fresh herbs from his own garden, as well as a long list of whatever is in season. He clearly has fun doing it and the fun shows up on your plate. One of his regular veg dishes is an edamame humus and lentil humus pairing with flatbread which is simply divine. The edamame makes a fresh twist on regular hummus and the lentil version packs a nutty punch. The fern shoots picked in Wailua were an unusual treat, dressed in a sheyu calamansi vinaigrette, and showed off Higa's creative range. The main restaurant at the Marriott is Kukio's, where Higa's talents shine but there is also a first rate sushi bar.

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Long the North shore poster child of locally grown vegetarian fare and locally caught seafood, Post Cards is an established favorite for good reason. In a charming bungalow with a pretty herb garden, chef Brandon Reed serves an ever changing menu of primarily locally grown and produced ingredients in a space that feels like being in a friend's home. The space is small and cozy, with white painted wood beamed cielings. The chef Brandon Reed, owners and staff are charming as the bungalow, the food delicious.

I had an amazing whole roasted tomato, in a lovely light sauce with chopped chard and fresh herbs. The bright green spinach risotto with a roasted tomato sauce, grilled polenta and asparagus was rich and perfect, a totally satisfying example of the best of local produce and Reed's skilled hand in the kitchen. Postcards is known for fresh local produce and seafood in a casual but upscale vibe. The wine list had a lot of great choices, something just right for each course. Reservations are highly recommended. There is a nice picnic table in the garden to have a glass of wine if you are waiting for a table.

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Oasis Grill

The Oasis Grill is like Gilligan's Island with great food. Rising star chef Zach Sato has the intuitive culinary gifts of the best of them, creating that elusive blend of casual but upscale, creative and fresh, trendy but not so hip as to preclude uber casual flip flop mode. On a recent visit I loved the corn fritters with a fantastic ginger chili soy dipping sauce. The fritters were light and flavorful, the locally grown corn crunchy and fresh. Sato's amazingly light and fluffy taro falafels are made with locally grown garbanzo beans sprouted to order for Sato and served with a zingy ginger raita made with cilantro instead of mint for a nice surprise. An utterly perfect roasted beet salad with a local favorite, li hing mui dressing made with local macadamia nut oil, was also excellent.Small plates are perfect for sharing, as is the atmosphere.

Locals and visitors alike line the bar elbow to elbow, in a somewhat unlikely venue tucked into the upscale Waipouli condo development. The restaurant sits smack on the beach, with a big grassy outdoor space to wander about with a drink in hand, ogling the ocean and the cool crowd. This is the kind of place you arrange to meet friends and spend the evening hanging out. Watch for well attended concerts where if you eat dinner first, entry is gratis. The concerts are a great reason to plan an evening at the Oasis, but the inventive, fantastic food and setting alone are more than enough reason to spend a fun evening there. Watch for Sato's star to keep rising.
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Med Gourmet

At nearly the end of the road out of Hanalei to the north sits a treat worth the trek. In fact the drive is half the fun, and the reward is the pitch perfect Mediterranean food prepared and often served by charming chef/owner team Imad and Yarrow. The atmosphere is Hawaii meets Morocco which is so much fun it's hard not love the place on entry. With big open windows facing the sea, hanging lanterns and snuggly booths, tropical flowers and enticing smells, the setting is perfect. The food, happily, is just as good. My favorite thing on the menu was the fava bean stew in a rich and satisfying tomato base, Imad's mother's crazy good recipe.

I always figure a mediterranean restaurant's worth is gauged by it's humus, much like guacamole in a Mexican restaurant.Med Gourmet proves itself a winner in the humus department. Served on a lovely mixed med platter of perfect falafel, tahini, a bed of crunchy bright purple cabbage and an assortment of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, the sampler is a meal in itself. If in season, the roasted artichoke is a treat, charred on the edges just right with two lovely dipping sauces.

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