Dining Al Fresco On The Lanai
One of my favorite ways to spend an evening is to dine in casual elegance, with each morsel on my plate full of robust yet refined flavors, while feeling Kaua’i’s soft trade winds caress my shoulders, listening to some of Hawaii’s best slack key music playing softly in the background, while watching a sunset then a moonrise – and sharing it all with someone special.
That’s exactly how dinner with my boyfriend Lincoln was at Merriman’s Kaua’i in Kukui’ula Village in Po’ipu. It was purely delightful, from the first bite of house-made focaccia bread with strawberry-papaya jam to the very last licks of Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory dark chocolate dessert from our lips. Add the attentive and friendly service we received from Hollan Hamid and Daniel Costa, and we couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Merriman’s Kaua’i is one year old and follows the philosophy on which owner Peter Merriman based his first Big Island restaurant more than 20 years ago: Use the freshest ingredients from as many local farmers as possible. He began by recruiting farmers to grow food for his restaurant, and to this day still features products from farms he’s worked with since those early years. Almost 100 percent of Merriman’s menu is food from the Hawaiian Islands.
The number of Kaua’i growers with whom Merriman’s has partnered in just one year is impressive. From pupu to desserts, the menu is chock full of Kaua’i farms and ranches, including Theobroma Farms, Nectar Gardens, Kaua’i Fresh Farms, Western Skies, Kaua’i Shrimp Company, Kailani Farms, Kaua’i Kunana Dairy, Cultivate Kaua’i and for Merriman’s more casual dining restaurant downstairs, A’akukui Ranch.
Executive Chef Kevin Ives says that he’s always looking for more growers to work with and invites farmers to come by the restaurant or call him.
Merriman’s concept also includes making sure all guests feel welcome.
“Peter wants everybody in our company to treat our customers like we’re throwing a party in our own house,” Ives says.
Guests in my home should be so lucky; all my parties are potluck.
Lincoln and I ate at Merriman’s upstairs, which offers upscale dining in a plantation-style setting. The cafÃ© downstairs has an entirely different menu for casual dining with pizzas, fish tacos, pulled kalua pork sandwiches, burgers and “wahine-friendly foods – light dishes that are robust in flavor,” Ives says.
We sat on the lanai off the back of the restaurant to enjoy views of meadows, mountains and the ocean. For those arriving before 6 p.m., bring sunglasses or a visor. It’s worth it.
We began with the Merriman’s Pupu Taster ($25), a selection of four diverse appetizers that complement each other: coconut green curry steamed Manila clams; Mamo Kaneshiro’s kalua pig and sweet onion quesadilla; Nectar Gardens beets with Kunana Dairy feta cheese and candied cashews; and sesame striped marlin sashimi with sweet corn, lima and green beans. All were absolutely outstanding, meeting my desire for vibrant and lively flavors with every bite, and each were nice-sized portions for pupu.
We each had a salad: a Caesar with delicious crunchy fried green tomato “croutons,” and that night’s special iceberg salad with pickled red onions, apple-smoked bacon, a tomato relish and blue cheese dressing. We also split very hearty and spicy Cuban black bean soup. We were beginning to fill up by this time, but we felt in the name of full reporting, it was our duty to try some entrees.
Most of Merriman’s dinners ($19 to $39) can be ordered in full or half portions with six ounces of protein for a full-size; three ounces for a half order. You also can combine two entrees for $44.
We chose the “Mix Plate” for $47 that provides three-ounce servings of three Merriman’s signature dishes: mahi mahi, filet mignon and wok-charred ahi. All were excellent and we could have eaten more of each. The ahi was the most melt-in-my-mouth I’ve had in years, the mahi was delicate and moist and the filet was tender and flavorful.
In every dish from pupu to entrees, the sauces were sublime: perfectly blended combinations of subtle yet lively flavors. We had fun guessing ingredients in each one.
As fine as all the appetizers and main course were, our dessert of a molten chocolate “purse” with vanilla bean gelato and Kona brew coco loco caramel sauce took the prize for our favorite dish of the evening. The slight bitterness of the dark chocolate from the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory in Kona balanced out the sweetness wonderfully and kept us coming back for more until we’d just about licked the plate clean. The “purse” was phyllo dough that held the chocolate in an edible pouch. The gelato was courtesy Kaua’i’s own
Papalani Gelato located in Po’ipu Shopping Village. A decadent dessert that was so good it was almost guilt-free. Is that possible?
With one glass of wine ($8), our bill came to $130, quite reasonable for the caliber and volume of food we had.
Our server Hollan said she is beginning to book private gatherings including luncheons and holiday parties for the restaurant upstairs. She has worked at Merriman’s since it opened on Kaua’i and is highly knowledgeable about Merriman’s concept.
“I love working here,” she said. “I’m proud of what I serve.”
Merriman’s Kaua’i specials include a nightly three course dinner for $25 served in the upstairs bar; Lobster Night on Thursdays featuring 1 1/4 pound whole Maine lobsters grown in Kona for $29 from 5:30 p.m. until they’re gone; (Chef Ives says they’re normally sold out by 6:30 p.m., so arrive early); half-price bottles of wine on Friday nights; and wine tasting on the front lanai with light pupu for $25 on full-moon nights.
Merriman’s Kaua’i upstairs is open for dinner every night from 5:30 p.m. The cafÃ© downstairs opens daily at 11 a.m. Upstairs phone: 742-8385; downstairs: 742-2856.