A Pa‘ina At Keokiâ€™s Paradise
“Keoki’s Paradise captures that feeling you get when you walk into your friend’s backyard. It’s about the lifestyle, aloha and sharing food that we grew up with,” says executive chef Cory Dotario. “If Keoki was an uncle, it’s like you’re coming into his house to have a pa’ina (party).”
We are sitting on the lanai in a dining room that overlooks a pond. It trickles into a stream, then another small pond and down a little waterfall. Tropical flowers as well as palm and bamboo trees rustle in the soft, early evening air and a giant banyan tree throws deep shadows. Laughter mixes with Hawaiian music and spills across the restaurant, where rustic beams stretch its length and lazily spinning fans hang from the vaulted ceiling.
Born and raised in Kalaheo, Dotario worked at Duke’s at Kalapaki Beach for 16 years, after attending the culinary arts program at Kaua’i Community College (KCC).
“Mark Oyama was my instructor,” recalls Dotario. “He was a great mentor because he taught me how to set goals. While I was in school, I cooked for Guy Higa at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort. He told me, ‘It’s not about the name you make for yourself, it’s what you do for your community.'”
Keoki’s Paradise, Duke’s Kaua’i and 11 other eateries are owned by TS Restaurants. Every year, the restaurant group participates in several community-based fundraisers.
“We donate money to the keiki program at Kukuiula Canoe Club,” says general manager Derek Kessler. “The money helps with race registration fees, dues and paddles. ‘Legacy of Aloha’ is a community outreach program that supports watersports, keiki and kupuna activities and needs. We’ve also helped several volleyball clubs, the culinary department at KCC and donated to Kaua’i United Way.”
Recently, Kessler and Dotario went to Napa, Calif. They toured many farm-to-table restaurants and saw huge gardens with vegetables such as kale, lettuce, herbs and peppers.
“Farm-to-table is a big deal in Napa,” explains Dotario. “After seeing that, we’ve been thinking about putting a garden in at Keoki’s.”
Even though Dotario is looking to buy more from Kaua’i-based farmers, Keoki’s menu is peppered with local products. Burgers are made with Medeiros Farms grass-fed beef, there’s a salad with Sheldonia mixed greens and Kaua’i Kunana Dairy goat cheese, and all fish is from the state and it’s never frozen.
On the pupu menu, the Poke Tower ($12.95) is layers of ahi poke, fine cubes of cucumber and avocado and a sprinkling of furikake over a round of sushi rice. It comes with a side of house-made purple sweet potato chips. If you like it spicy, ask for the Dynamite Sauce made with sriracha, mayonnaise, rice vinegar and chives.
The top of the cocktail menu features “Handcrafted Creations,” so I order the Koloa Hoopio ($10.50). It’s a smooth blend of muddled fresh pineapple, fresh basil, coconut milk and Kaua’i Spice Koloa Rum, shaken and served over ice.
Grilled Thai Shrimp and Green Papaya salad ($13.95) is a blend of Sheldonia Farm mixed greens, carrots, tomatoes, green beans and peanuts in a fresh lime vinaigrette.
“We take a classic and add our twist with shrimp,” says Dotario. “It’s our original grilled Thai shrimp sticks that we used to serve, but now we serve it on a salad.”
Every night, there are about four varieties of Hawaiian fish in the kitchen. The Chef’s Fresh Fish Duo ($33) allows you to select two 3-ounce portions, and tonight opah and monchong are options.
Snapper is used in the Ginger Cilantro Steamed fish ($30), which is tender and succulent after being steamed in a bamboo basket. It’s topped with an Asian pesto (made with cilantro, ginger, sesame oil and scal-lions), sizzling peanut oil and citrus ponzu sauce. The dish comes with a side of steamed vegetables and rice.
“It’s simple, straightforward food,” explains Dotario. “We are taking the food that we like here in Hawaii and sharing it with our guests.”
Beginning at 11 a.m., lunch is served in the Bamboo Bar, which is open until 11 p.m. Dinner is served from 4:45 to 9:30 p.m. in the dining room, and from 4:45 to 5:45 you can order the Early Bird Special ($22). The special offers a choice of salad or appetizer, one of five entrees (including a fresh fish option) and dessert. Aloha Hour is every day from 3 to 5 p.m. and features half-price pupus, specials on select entrees, tropical drinks, wines by the glass and draft beer.
Live music is every day from 6 to 8 p.m.
For the second year, Keoki’s is hosting an Ukes in Paradise contest as part of Koloa Plantation Days. On July 28, keiki from kindergarten through 12th grade will compete for prizes including ukuleles, gift bags, Keoki’s Paradise merchandise and gift certificates. There’s no cost to enter and entrants get a free buffet lunch.
Keoki’s Paradise 2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa
Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.