A Hidden Treasure By The Sea

I just discovered a hidden gem that is only open from May through September, and again in December. Plus, there’s complimentary valet parking.

Nalu Kai, a casual, seasonal outdoor restaurant that faces Hanalei Bay, is tucked alongside the pool at St. Regis Princeville. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you went through the hotel, and even then you might miss it.

At the north end of the pool, wicker chairs and glass-topped tables are lined under a gazebo – its corners draped with white curtains, tied at their center. Bossa nova and trance music straight from an Ibiza disco fill the small dining area. Front and center, where a hostess usually is, a heat lamp warms pissaladiere, a pizza from southern France.

“It’s a specialty from Provence,” says sous chef Maxime Michaud. The cheeseless pizza is topped with an onion compote, anchovies and piquillo peppers. “We keep it whole, and we serve it tableside.”

Michaud’s menu of Mediterranean-style tapas combines classic European flavors with Hawaiian ingredients, and offers something for everyone. Prices are reasonable, ranging from $8 to $24; the most expensive is the market-priced ahi. Local ingredients infuse the dishes, and sidebars describe Kaua’i’s farmers and what they grow.

“All the (St. Regis Princeville) restaurants work with the local farmers,” says Michaud, whose passion for cooking came from his father, a French chef and restaurant owner.

After graduating from Savoie & Léman culinary school near Geneva, Michaud cooked at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Le Bourget du Lac, France, a small village about two hours northeast of Léon.

Europeans are passionate about their food, so much so that consortiums such as the Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) protect food products specific to a region. If the U.S. had such a law, it would protect Kona coffee from being adulterated with Brazilian beans.

The San Daniele Prosciutto ($12) features sweet cantaloupe draped with thin slices of DOP-certified Prosciutto di San Daniele. The cured ham is produced in Northern Italy using ancient tradition, and the cantaloupe was grown on Kaua’i’s Westside. An icy Port Granita adds a flavorful crunch to the delicate ham and juicy melon.

Puff pastry is made with many folded layers of butter and dough. Everything has to stay cold for it to turn out right. I can’t imagine making it here, but executive pastry chef Frank Desplechin does. I’ve never had fresh puff pastry before, and one bite of the savory spirals filled with an olive tapenade (free to every guest), puts me in a swoon.

A long strip of thin and crispy flatbread is laden with sangria-poached figs and generous dollops of Kunana Dairy goat cheese. A crisp-tender fennel confit adds a sweet freshness, and flakes of fresh orange zest are unexpected. It makes the dish exceptional. The Méditerranée ($11) also is available on gluten-free bread.

Crunchy macadamia nuts envelope the bodies of four head-on Kaua’i Shrimp ($16), and complement the shrimp’s naturally sweet flesh. It’s a little spicy, and a garlic goat cheese dip adds a pungent tang.

When done right, octopus, or tako as it’s known in Hawai’i, is one of my favorites. Like calamari, it has to be cooked quickly, or for a long time. Err on either side, and it’s chewy. Michaud’s Tako Tako ($14) is braised to tender submission. Thin slices intermingle with vegetables marinated in citrus and basil, and deep-fried octopus strips add a wonderful crunch.

As the sun sets over Hanalei Bay, stars pierce bright holes in the sky. Torch flames dance on the breeze as couples dine in cabanas lining the perimeter of the restaurant. White hibiscus and plumeria trees cradle them in showy privacy.

“It’s St. Regis, but it’s a really fun concept,” Michaud says with his charming French accent. “It’s open to any kind of clientele, families, couples. They come here and watch the sunset, have a couple of drinks and a couple of tapas. They’re sharing everything – it’s a really cool ambiance.”

Nalu Kai St.
Regis Princeville
Tapas: Friday-Monday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Lunch: Daily, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.