It’s Food … It’s Art … It’s Ono!

Chef Garrison Price and manager Ashlee Fairbanks. Daniel Lane photos

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow foodies! If you’re like me, you’ve had your menu planned for several weeks. But if you’d rather be eating than cooking, I recommend curling up in the lap of luxury at Kaua’i Grill restaurant in the St. Regis Princeville Resort.

Executive chef JeanGeorges Vongerichten is known for creating exquisite flavor profiles that showcase local ingredients. With his 29 restaurants worldwide, six cookbooks, three Michelin stars and two James Beard awards (for Best Chef and Best New Restaurant), it’s no wonder Kaua’i Grill is considered the premier restaurant in Kaua’i County.

To craft the perfect bite, one must master the fundamentals of flavor. Vongerichten’s use of the five basic tastes sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (savory) is a brilliant master stroke that juxtaposes unlikely ingredients. In his deft hands, unusual flavor combinations are always a pleasant surprise.

The internationally acclaimed chef must rely on local personnel to provide a memorable dining experience. Newly hired chef de cuisine Garrison Price and general manager Ashlee Fairbanks are an experienced duo with an ambitious goal: to make Kaua’i Grill a fivestar restaurant.

The Kaua‘i Grill dining room is tasteful and relaxed

“You can be a five-star restaurant and still have a very homey feeling,” says Fairbanks, whose goal also is to make Kaua’i Grill more approachable to residents. “You are coming into our home, and we welcome you.”

Recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a finalist in the “Rising Star Chef of the Year” category, Price has travelled the globe cultivating a food style that Vongerichten inspired.

“When I was 19, I had the opportunity to go to the Michelin three-star restaurant of Jean-Georges in New York and do what you call a stage (pronounced stodge), or working interview,” Price recalls. “It’s a very intense environment. That’s something I’ve always carried with me, and that was 12 years ago.”

As a young boy, Price’s first love was raspberries. “Grandpa, Grandma and I picked the freshest raspberries,” he says, reflecting on a berry farm in Michigan. “The car’s trunk was full to the brim with them.

White Chocolate and Yuzu Pavlova

“We made huge vats of raspberry jam, and gave it to all of our friends, families and neighbors. That was the first step in realizing the difference between storebought jam and homemade jam. There is a process, but the reward is evident once you taste it, see it and smell it. That created the romance of knowing where our food comes from.”

At Kaua’i Grill, Price and his team replicate Vongerichten classics and add local flavor. The result is an eye-popping menu full of delicious choices. The five-course prix fixe menu ($85) features smaller portions from the regular menu, allowing you to taste a variety of dishes for a reasonable price. Fairbanks pairs wine to each course for an additional $48.

Price begins the tasting with an amuse-bouche, the French term for “mouth amuser.” A buttery sliver of wild Tasmanian salmon sashimi rests on a block of crispy rice and a creamy chipotle emulsion. A savory soy honey glaze, fresh cilantro and mint have my taste buds clamoring for more.

Sliced within a scale of its life, the hamachi smells clean and fresh. Creamy avocado melds with the fork-tender fish and melts in my mouth. The crunchy watermelon radish adds a cutting bite, and a spicy combination of ginger, chives, soy and yuzu explode on the tongue.

Steamed Onaga in coconut juice and parsnip/basil puree

A classic combination with a local twist features papaya mustard, and bacon wrapped around Kaua’i shrimp, with the heads still attached. The sweet and smoky combination is scrumptious, and reminds me of my mom. She is from Barcelona, and they like their shrimp whole.

“I’ve always liked using Kaua’i shrimp the quality is excellent,” says Price, who also used it when he worked at the Four Seasons on Lanai. “I got to go there. Being able to see where it comes from, and knowing the integrity behind it, the people who are running it, is even more incentive for us to use their product.”

The meal is perfectly choreographed, and with a brief respite between courses, my husband Dan and I enjoy the wine and gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sun has set; thunder flashes across the black ocean and lightning echos around Hanalei Bay. We feel cozy, ensconced in comfortable, high-backed booths, safe from nature’s fury.

Just when we start thinking about the next course, our waiter Pete Hartley delivers a silky kabocha squash and ginger soup. The sweet soup has a mild heat and a dollop of tofu cream adds an earthy, almost acidic flavor. Spiced pumpkin seeds add a salty crunch.

Bacon-wrapped Kaua‘i Shrimp

Coconut, cinnamon, lime and chili peppers? Yes, please. As long as it’s with Vongerichten and Price’s steamed onaga. Topped with a medley of young coconut, roasted poblano pepper and kaffir lime, the onaga sits on a bed of parsnip purée. A small pitcher containing hot “coconut juice” which is like broth with fresh coconut water and spices is poured around, and the warm scent of cinnamon floats on a puff of steam.

Brussels sprouts, pecans and avocados? Yes again! along with supremely tender and flavorful Wagyu beef tenderloin and a tab of mustard butter. The butter melts into the crispy crevices of the beef, mingles with the sprouts, pecans and avocado and marches along my taste buds.

Fairbanks pairs a semisweet moscato with dessert. It’s beautiful with the rich white chocolate mousse that’s layered between airy slabs of vanilla merengue. A mound of yuzu sorbet adds a refreshing zing, and bright green Thai basil syrup adds a surprising herbal layer.

“Showcasing an herb in a dessert isn’t something people usually experience,” explains Price. “JeanGeorges likes to bring flavors to the table using herbs.”

Dining at Kaua’i Grill is delightfully surprising, and eating locally sourced food that is respectfully crafted by Vongerichten and his team is one of the great joys of my life.

Wagyu beef with Brussels sprouts, pecans and avocado. Daniel Lane photo

“Ninety percent of our menu is sourced from Hawaii, more than 50 percent from Kaua’i,” Price tells me. “Cooking with integrity means using honestly produced food that’s honestly cooked and served.”

This week, Kaua’i Grill will feature a Thanksgiving menu with classic flavors and local ingredients.

“We are doing a fivecourse prix fix menu with a traditional turkey that has a contemporary JeanGeorges twist,” says Price. “We’ll also have a pumpkin cheesecake.”

I’m rethinking my Thanksgiving dinner plans!

Kaua’i Grill 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville

Open Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Reservations: 826-9644