Local Fish Stars At The Dolphin

“The Dolphin restaurant is unique because every three days we get whole fish straight from Kaua’i’s waters,” says Bryson Sugahara, general manager of the Dolphin in Hanalei. Sugahara also manages a new location that opened in November 2012 at the Shops at Kukuiula in Poipu.

For more than 30 years, the Dolphin restaurant, fish market and sushi bar in Hanalei has cultivated solid relationships with a handful of local fishermen, and according to Sugahara, working with Kaua’i-based fishermen means better quality.

“If you buy from the (Honolulu) auction, the fish goes through eight hands before it gets to the plate,” he explains. “You got the longliner fisherman, the person who delivers to the auction block, the auction block cuts and displays the fish, there’s a packing guy and then it has to be shipped. Finally, the local distributor gets it and delivers it to the restaurant. At the Dolphin, it only goes through two hands.”

With two restaurants, two sushi bars and two fish markets, the Dolphin goes through roughly 1,500 pounds of fresh, local fish every week. Today in Poipu, there’s whole ono, ahi, opah and monchong hanging in the cooler.

“The market allows people to get the local fish we offer in the restaurant and take it home,” says kitchen manager Eric Sudeth. “We recommend people prepare it simply with a little salt and pepper or our house seasoning, and cook it in a pan or on the grill. Each cut is different, so we also give cooking times.”

Both North and South Shore menus are the same and include the Poipu Roll ($22). Diced Japanese hamachi is lightly tossed with house-made sriracha aioli and wrapped in shiso – a pungent Japanese herb that tastes like basil and mint. A tempura asparagus spear is tucked alongside and the roll is topped with seasonal fish. Tonight it’s ono, which is topped with slivers of green onion and saffron tobiko and served with a truffle oil ponzu sauce.

“We like to do fusion sushi,” says Andrew Rayne, executive sushi chef at the Poipu location.

Rayne has been making sushi for 13 years and just over four years ago, helped open the Dolphin’s sushi bar in Hanalei. “We take influences from different kinds of cuisine and create original, tasty rolls. At the sushi bar, we like to do chef’s choice or omakase, where we ask guests what they like and we create for them.”

Three types of fish are cubed and added to the Rainbow Poke ($14). Ahi and New Zealand salmon are always in the appetizer, along with white fish, wakame (seaweed), avocado and sushi rice.

“For the white fish, we usually use ono in our Rainbow Poke,” says Rayne, “but sometimes we have opakapaka, onaga or uku. It depends on what the fishermen bring in.”

Specialty drinks using fresh ingredients are blended into island-style cocktails. Bar manager Rachel Ellenberger infuses shochu (a distilled beverage popular in far western and southern regions of Japan) with local pineapple. She adds Creme de Violetle, fresh lemon juice, lychee simple syrup and orange bitters for the Blue Dolphin ($10).

“The drink is a play on words,” says Ellenberger, “because a lot of people call our restaurant the Blue Dolphin and it’s just the Dolphin.”

Freshly shredded ginger gives the Ginger Rita ($12) a peppery snap. Grand Marnier and Cazadores Reposado is added, and the drink is topped with an alaea sea salt rim. The best-selling drink pairs perfectly with my entree.

An 8-ounce ahi steak is marinated for more than 24 hours in the Dolphin’s signature Teriyaki Ahi (market price). A bath in the light, broth-y teriyaki sauce infuses the meaty tuna with a subtle flavor. It’s delightful on its own, but the Dolphin serves it with a side of melted butter, which adds rich succulence.

“We use as much local product as possible, and we’re very proud of that,” says Rayne. “If we have time, we love to take people into the walk in to show them the fish hanging up. It blows their mind every time.”

The Dolphin Hanalei: 826-6113 Poipu: 742-1414 HanaleiDolphin.com

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.