Where Farmers Are Rock Stars
Big red bells and silver snowflakes drip down evergreen garlands, as coach lights sparkle with promise. A wood staircase painted white leads into Merriman’s Fish House in Kuluiula Shopping Village in Po’ipu.
Inside, open walls offer a glimpse of the ocean, and lazy ceiling fans spin reflections on the gleaming wood floors. Framed black-and-white photographs of Kaua’i farmers posed like rock stars line the walls.
For Peter Merriman, farmers are rock stars. Since 1991, when he opened his first restaurant, Merriman’s Waimea on the Big Island, the chef has created meals starring the bounty from local farmers, ranchers and fishermen.
Merriman is one of 12 Hawaii chefs recently inducted into the Hawaii Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame. These chefs are responsible for creating the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement 20 years ago, and gave local growers an expanding market for their produce.
“Peter has great relationships with farmers,” says executive chef Mark Arriola, who worked with Merriman for four years before moving back to his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he owned and operated eight restaurants before returning to the Islands. “We really push ourselves to make sure that at least 80, 85 percent of everything we serve is from the Islands.”
Preferring the superior quality in flavor and texture, Merriman’s sources from local fishermen, who troll the waters off Kaua’i and deliver their fresh catch hooked earlier in the day.
“We like troll-caught, because the quality of the fish is better,” Arriola explains. “With longline fishing, the fish go through more stress. They sit in the water for a long time, they sit on the boat even longer. We want day-boat stuff.”
The Crispy Day Boat Mahi Mahi ($31 full/$25 smaller portion) with sesame grilled shiitake relish, silky Moloka’i sweet potatoes and a soy citrus glaze is a wonderful example. Marinated in ponzu sauce, and lightly dusted with cornstarch before it’s seared, the mahi is crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside.
Pan Seared Diver Scallops ($37/$31) are served with juicy sautÃ©ed asparagus and Big Island sweet creamed corn. A sprinkling of crisp housecured and smoked bacon adds a rich charred flavor that only great bacon can give.
My favorite is the Chili Pepper Shrimp Scampi ($31/$25) made with Kaua’i shrimp harvested that morning (see next week’s farmers market for more on Kaua’i shrimp). Seared shrimp curl in the folds of creamy polenta that’s enriched with Kaua’i Kunana Dairy goat cheese. A drizzle of roasted tomato vinaigrette fills the crevices between the shrimp and polenta, and adds a flavorful finishing touch to this gourmet comfort food.
Even though Merriman’s is a fish house, it will offer meat on this week’s four-course Christmas menu.
“We’ve got some duck coming in and some local lamb. We’ll have Kaneshiro pork as well, and we’ll use what’s at the farmers market. We’re really big about building relationships with our farmers and fishermen,” says Arriola, while Cynthia Chiang of Kunana Dairy jogs up the stairs with the day’s delivery. “Hi, Chef!” she calls out, and slips through the back door and into the kitchen.
“As a chef, I love that I know who grew my stuff,” he continues. “There’s a face to everything that comes in our door, that adds more responsibility, and you take more care. When I’m preparing dishes with their food, I know they support their family with it. For me, that’s the coolest thing.”
2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Koloa
742-8385 Open for dinner nightly, 5:30 to 9 p.m. merrimanshawaii.com