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The restaurant utilizes fresh herbs grown onsite.

Head for Hilo and dine on Moon and Turtle’s vast assortment of locavore fare.

As Mark Pomaski and his wife Soni sat in a sports bar in New York City five years ago, contemplating a move back to Hawai‘i and opening a restaurant, Bruddah Iz’s Henehe Kou Aka starts to play.

“I think I probably knew at that point—it was some sort of sign,” says Mark. “I don’t think I knew exactly what it meant, but it was so random and out of character for that place. It was not on the playlist.”

As destiny would have it, the couple returned to the Islands later that year, settling in Mark’s hometown of Hilo, and opened Moon and Turtle on a little side street off Kamehameha Avenue next to the historic S.H. Kress Building.

“It just happened so fast,” remembers Soni. “We signed the lease on a Friday, and opened our doors on a Monday (in October 2013). We were lucky, it was a turnkey restaurant.”

Initially, the Pomaskis envisioned a quaint two-person mom-and-pop mini counter-service eatery, but that quickly changed to a full restaurant with a bar and approximately three-dozen seats. The small-town hole-in-the-wall also built a following for its eclectic menu, creating a buzz in the culinary world. It continuously receives rave reviews, awards and an invitation to participate in the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival last fall.

“Our name Moon and Turtle is based on a Japanese concept of the spectrum— the moon is very high, and the turtle is very low—and we take that concept and we fit the food within it,” explains Soni. “So, either by pairing more humble ingredients with more elevated ingredients, such as the humble potato and caviar. We have a wide range of dishes from comfort food to more luxury-type dishes.

“It’s also about bringing both ends of the spectrum to the middle in a place that’s accessible to more people. That’s something I love about looking out into the dining room. You see all types of people—some are all dressed up and some are wearing slippers, and I like that. I wanted a space where you can come in and feel comfortable.”

Soni, who is originally from New Jersey and moved to Hawai‘i as a teen, has been working in the coffee business since she was 16, starting with Honolulu Coffee Co. Mark, a 1995 graduate of Hilo High, went to college in Oregon, and studied English literature and anthropology. However, he pursued the restaurant business instead, starting at a Japanese restaurant in Eugene called Shiki.

“I was 19 years old and needed a job,” he explains. “I was working in the kitchen, and I think the kitchen manager saw that I had a natural ability [with knives], and he recommended me to the sushi chef.

“He’s a third-generation sushi chef from Osaka, and I learned a lot of traditional things from him. He taught me the basics of knife sharpening and maintenance.”

Mark went on to open Roy’s Waikiki as head sushi chef, and then became the company’s corporate sushi chef in charge of the sushi program for all of Roy’s Hawaii restaurants. In 2011, he and Soni moved to New York City, where he was a sushi chef at famed Nobu Fifty Seven, and Soni worked as a barista/manager at popular New York-based Birch Coffee.

“We had wanted to start our own restaurant, and decided New York would be an amazing place to soak up some culture, see what’s happening in a place that sets trends and be exposed to the creative energy there,” says Mark. “Our plan was to live there for two years, and we pretty much stuck to it. It was a great learning experience, but it was hard because we had different schedules so we would never see each other. So, it’s nice now that we work together.”

Open for dinner only, Moon and Turtle is known for its exquisite locavore cuisine made with fresh, quality ingredients. Th ey serve grass-fed local beef and locally caught fish; and use heart of palms, lemons and citrus from nearby OK Farms. They also purchase lobsters, clams and mussels from local aquaculture company Kona Cold Lobster; and shop at their neighborhood farmers market daily.

The menu is a mixed plate, influenced by local flavors and local-style dining. Dishes change each day, but there usually always is sashimi, alongside fresh pasta, fried rice and seafood. They also make their own bread.

“It’s very internationally inspired with a Pacific emphasis, and we focus on locally sourced ingredients,” explains Mark, noting that it’s a family-style sharing menu.

“We don’t really have a set menu,” adds Soni. “We base it on what’s available and what comes to the market. It’s very inspired by Hilo, growing up in Hawai‘i and eating different types of cuisines. A lot of it is inspired too by where Mark has been, where he is now and where he wants to go in the future, and by who’s in the kitchen. We have line cooks, and Mark is always wanting to encourage learning.”

Among Moon and Turtle’s signature dishes is Smokey Sashimi, a small plate prepared with kiawe-smoked soy sauce, naturally fermented probiotic chili pepper water and extra virgin olive oil. Also a favorite is its Cured Striped Marlin Sashimi with holy basil flowers, garlic chives and truffle tomato water.

Moon and Turtle also is known for its coffee, which they get from Rusty’s Hawaiian in Ka‘u; and cocktails—Soni recommends the She So Sour made with fresh lemon juice, simple syrup infused with shiso, and gin. They even have a top-of-the-line La Marzocco espresso machine. For dessert, the affogato is a must.

“Hilo is a special place,” says Mark, who is Polish, Welch and Vietnamese. “I had a good childhood here, and I feel like I had a great career. We always had the idea of opening my own place in my hometown.

“It’s a small town—not a lot of things going on—so people leave as soon as they can, and I think it’s fine, but I think more people should come back with the things they pick up from their travels. It’s important for them to come back and share.”

Also known for its cocktails, the She So Sour is a customer favorite. OPPOSITE: Moon and Turtle typically features a pasta special such as puttanesca; the restaurant’s cozy interiors.

Moon and Turtle, 51 Kalakaua St., Hilo, (808) 961-0599