Pop in any evening, hopefully with a secured reservation, and Merriman’s Kapalua’s dining room will be teeming with well-dressed and intrepid diners who undoubtedly arrived with high expectations. Eleven years since opening its doors, the restaurant remains one of the most sought-after dining destinations on the Valley Isle by one of the most recognizable and respected names in Hawai‘i’s ever bright and burgeoning culinary world.
A visionary and veteran restaurateur, chef Peter Merriman is integral to the shift in agriculture and food practices on our islands. New arrivals of novice and seasoned chefs quickly learn about Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, of which Merriman was one of the pioneers. Now a little shy of three decades since its inception, the movement was the necessary catalyst that forged Hawai‘i’s path towards sustainability and locally based sourcing practices.
The first local harvest show- cased during my recent visit was these vibrant pulpy tomatoes in oil that accompanied the freshly baked whole-wheat honey rolls by pastry chef Hugh Boggs. Grown exclusively for the restaurant by Tamimi Farms, the supple, vine-ripened tomatoes are grated and simply left in a marinade of garlic, olive oil and lime juice hours before service.
Since opening the flagship Merriman’s Waimea on the Big Island 30 years ago, the eponymous roster now includes sister locations in Kaua‘i and Honolulu at the Ward Village in the arts-driven and fast-growing urban sprawl of Kaka‘ako. He also partnered with Handcrafted Restaurants to launch Monkey- pod Kitchen in Ka‘anapali and Wailea on Maui and Waikiki, and Moku Kitchen at the Salt at Our Kaka‘ako’s dynamic retail and restaurant complex.
At Merriman’s Kapalua, copper-toned ceilings and wooden floors frame the majestic views of Kapalua Bay while buttoned-up servers and white table- cloths exude an old-school touch. The space opens to a vast lanai, aptly named Point and Bar, that lies right behind the jutted shoreline separating the scalloped, golden bays of Kapalua and Napili beaches. The area is ideal for nuptials and happy hour, or any special occasions that essentially call for spectacular sunsets and varying degrees of alcohol-fueled celebratory behavior.
Executive chef Adam Rzeczkowski, a Pittsburgh native like Merriman, was tapped in August 2018 from Bistro Molokini of Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. He started his training while in high school, washing dishes and eventually working the line. He honed his technique on the job, opting to work in fine-dining kitchens where one of his chefs would lend him classic culinary books that he studied after-hours. Rzeczkowski has now been cooking for 20-plus years, some of which were notably spent at Fearing’s restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Dallas under the mentorship of acclaimed Chef Dean Fearing, known as the “father of Southwestern cuisine.”
“Texas is so flat and so dry and only certain things grow there, so beef and game meats are popular,” shares Rzeczkowski. “Hawai‘i is so much more seafood-focused and it’s great learning about that. Here, it can be in the water this morning and I can serve it tonight. The biggest draw for our move here was learning something totally new.”
“Merriman’s is ingredient-driven. For chef [Merriman], there is no substitution and he is adamant at using the best products at all times. His high standards and the inspiration we gain from the ranchers and farmers vibed with me really well.”
Back to the meal, the tomatoes also appear on the Caesar salad as fried green tomato croutons. A play on escargot is the octopus or tako braised slowly for four hours and served on toasted sourdough with arugula, friseé and a generous dousing of parsley garlic butter. ‘Ahi sashimi blocks are shingled, seared rare and served with a cabbage slaw coated with rice wine vinaigrette, a side of pickled ginger and thickened wasabi soy. The Big Island goat chevré croquette, deep-fried until crispy, straddles the sweetness of fresh Kula strawberries and tartness of strawberry cassis vinaigrette.
Stewed tomatoes finishes one of the best dishes on the menu—the delicate kampachi with a spice rub of Szechuan pepper corn and orange zest, perfectly seared atop truffled potato ravioli with mascarpone, and a sauté of Hiribara Farms Swiss chard and fennel ragout with olives and loads of garlic on lemon butter sauce. Pan-seared scallops rest on roasted garlic and jalapeno Yukon potato puree, with cucumber and carrots namasu that yields a nice acidity, and a drizzle of shoyu butter sauce. Another strong favorite is the house- made cavatelli pasta, tossed with Swiss chard and Hamakua mushrooms in chicken jus, finished with dollops of house-made ricotta, Parmesan, truffle oil and chili flakes.
And if you’re leaning towards more carnal options, the Kahua Ranch lamb in brown butter mustard emulsion or the prime grade rib eye with garlic whipped potatoes and Otani Farms green beans would surely satiate the need for game.
Amidst the cacophonous hustle and bustle of the evening, one can make out the enchanting and worldly rhythms of Ranga Pae, which is Maori for “encircling the Earth.” The husband and wife team serenades the crowd with exotic renditions of pop hits and original music using a myriad of native instruments that might include the Indian sitar, the Hawaiian flute or a violin-like Chinese erhu. Yes, that familiar melody might just be Kelis’ “Milkshake” played with the harp-like Japanese koto. How about Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” on a Balinese tingklik xylophone? They got you covered.
While the wine room is expansive with well-curated selections to please highbrow oenophiles, the restaurant’s cocktail program is not to be missed. The earthy Mobeeto is made with fresh Kumu Farms beet juice, lime juice, rhubarb bitters, thyme infused simple syrup, and muddled mint rounded out with Prairie organic cucumber vodka. It’s shaken over ice and garnished with a fragrant sprig of thyme. Merriman’s version of Hawai‘i’s drink de rigueur—the mai tai—is done with house-made macadamia nut orgeat, Old Lahaina light rum, triple sec and lime juice crowned with honey liliko‘i foam dispensed from a whipped cream canister. The drink leans on a subtle sweetness and appears in all of Merriman’s bar menus.
Artfully assembled desserts include malasadas with melted white chocolate pastilles, and Merriman’s classic choco- late purse, a decadent dark chocolate ganache in a cinched pouch of phyllo dough served a la mode. And at Merri- man’s Kapalua, the best way to end the evening is on the lanai, sitting on the woven lounge pod by the fire pit for a final visual feast of the night sky. merriman’s Kapalua, One Bay Club Place, Lahaina, (808) 669-6400 or merrimanshawaii.com