A Simply Elegant Dash Of Red SaltRed Salt opened in April 2009 with an executive chef who had cooked at Spain’s el Bulli, a restaurant acclaimed as the best in the world five times. Eight months later, Red Salt won a Honolulu magazine bronze Hale Aina award for Best Kauai’ Restaurant. The chef left, and the determined staff secured a Top 5 mention in 2011. This year, new executive chef Seamus Mackenzie garnered the 2012 bronze Hale for Red Salt.
A native of New Mexico, Mackenzie’s 15-year career has spanned Pacific Northwest kitchens (Luc and Poppy), as well as those on Maui (Roy’s Kihei), in New York (Le Bernardin), France (Le Pied de Nez), Thailand (Gap’s Thai Art Culinary School) and Oaxaca (Cultural Institute in Mexico).
For three years, Mackenzie worked at Spago, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant in Beverly Hills. He moved to Maui in 2001, and as executive sous chef helped open Spago in Wailea. Now he’s leading the kitchen at Red Salt, where he believes simplicity is the key to great food.
“If you have a great product, the easiest way to mess it up is to get too complicated,” says Mackenzie, who’s been at Red Salt for eight months. “If you have a great tomato, the challenge is to figure out how to present it and keep that essence.”
Mackenzie and sous chef Adam Watten ardently pursue superior ingredients, and spotlight Hawaii’s exceptional fish and produce. But that comes with a heavy price tag because fresh, local and organic represent fragile ingredients that can be time-consuming to grow. Despite these factors, Red Salt turns highquality ingredients into ambrosial dishes at reasonable prices.“Sometimes people don’t understand the prices because they don’t know the amount of work, and the expense of organic and local,” says Mackenzie. “There’s a difference between nice, local fish and something that’s not as fresh.”
A 1960s circle couch and white leather sofas with chocolate wood frames are in the lounge where my husband Dan and I enjoy pre-dinner cocktails.
The open dining room with creamy travertine floors, high ceilings and sweeping windows create a clean and elegant atmosphere.
Tonight’s Red Salt Poke ($16) features a checkerboard of ahi and walu (Hawaiian butterfish). The glistening cubes sit on a bed of crisp wakame (seaweed) and sweet cucumber. There are dabs of spicy sauce on the walu, and tobiko (flying fish roe) adds a fun pop. The ahi is topped with peppery scallions and a caviar known as green sea grapes.
Fresh, clean and fabulous are the best words to describe Mackenzie’s brilliant rendition of a local favorite. The Lomi Lomi Martini ($13) has layers of flavors, and each bite is crisp and complex. Smoked tomatoes fashion the base, followed by an emerald band of spicy shiso (Japanese basil) purÃ©e. Finally, translucent blocks of Maui onion in chili pepper water are topped with house-cured salmon that’s cut into perfect little squares. It’s served with a side of taro bellini (pancakes) that I swear have touched bacon fat.Our friendly server Lannie asks for a favorite, and we vote for the Kalua Pork “Luau” ($12). It sent us into pure pork delirium, flush with exclamations, “It’s the best pork belly I’ve ever had!” Dan says as I feverishly take the last bite. Fatty chunks have been cooked so slowly and so gently that the interior is rich and buttery smooth. The top is crosshatched, and the whole thing is deep-fried, giving it a golden, crispy exterior. Rounds of taro gnocchi are tucked beside the pork, and a pineapple demi-glace with a peppery arugula salad add elements of sweet and spicy.
Butter adds great flavor to any dish, and in the Big Island Vanilla Bean Seared Mahi ($33) it’s used to sear and slowly baste the fish. The mahi’s flavorful and moist interior pairs nicely with floral black rice soaked in house-made coconut milk. A knob of zesty avocado-ginger salsa and a swirl of tangy curry sauce add a clean contrast.
I’m originally from Colorado, but that’s not why the Seared Rack of Lamb ($44) ranks as my favorite lamb dish. It’s because Mackenzie took a great product and simply prepared it. The Rocky Mountain chops are as high as my finger is long, and are so tender, you can cut them with a butter knife. A juicy bite is mild with no gamey taste.
Mackenzie also serves wonderful creme brulee, possibly the best I’ve tasted in my life. I know, I know, that’s three all-time favorites, but I do eat for a living! Infused with tart lilikoi, bright lemon and fiery ginger, it makes a flavorful custard. But it’s the way it’s cooked that makes it exceptional. It’s creamy, smooth, rich and thick in a way I didn’t know creme brulee could be.Another satisfying surprise is the Quattro Gelato ($9). It’s the first time I’ve been served Surinam Cherry at a restaurant, and the peppery berry combined with mango makes a zippy ice cream. Three additional flavors are a seductively sweet cinnamon ice cream with a soft warmth, a classic vanilla with tiny flecks of seeds, and a hazelnut with a deep, roasted flavor.
Three new favorites, a delightfully unexpected frozen dessert and a reasonably priced menu lead me to believe that Mackenzie will have no problem nabbing first place in next year’s Hale Aina awards.
Red Salt, in Koa Kea Resort
2251 Po’ipu Road, Koloa
Dinner: daily, 6-9 p.m.