The Kahala restaurant presents a new, sleek menu

The first time I met Wayne Hirabayashi, executive chef at Kahala Hotel and Resort, he was knee-deep in lobsters and Australian seafood. As he unloaded an ice chest full of crustaceans, I was struck by his enthusiasm and sheer joy.

That was 10 years ago, a week before the first of what would be many food festivals he’d plan. I still remember the fun of being with him in the kitchen as if it were yesterday.

Before Hirabayashi, Hoku’s had a reputation for fine dining that bordered on boring, and for a while, nobody I knew could muster up much more than a yawn when dinner there was suggested. But it was with Hirabayashi that things started to change.

It wasn’t that easy. The hotel changed ownership several times and closed for almost a year for a complete refurbishment. But all the while, Hirabayashi remained excited about ingredients and kept working Hoku’s menus.

These days at Hoku’s, there’s a lot to be excited about, including a seemingly never-ending bounty of high-quality ingredients.

“Try this,” says Hirabayashi on a recent visit. He pushes some near-rare beef across the open kitchen counter. It is sublime – marbled, melt-in-your-mouth and full of flavor.

“It’s Kobe,” he says. “It just came in this morning, and I’m putting it on the menu today.”

We’re hanging out by the kitchen, the open, busy work area where Hirabayashi has spent most of his days these last 10 years.

It’s a great kitchen, and if you always head for a window table or a roomy booth at Hoku’s – undoubtedly the best spots to catch the sunset or the lapping waves – the counter is a great alternative area to wine and dine. It’s a different kind of Hoku’s experience, made all the more enjoyable by brief interactions with the chefs.

“This kitchen was always set up for Pacific Rim,” Hirabayashi says of the earlier days when Hoku’s was trying to find its way. “There’s the wok, the sushi bar, the pizza oven, the tandoor … all of it designed with Pacific Rim in mind.”

But you can’t really identify Hoku’s as Pacific Rim cuisine today. The slimmed-down menu features more contemporary Asian dishes, with a core of sustainable ingredients.

“I think the identity changed from time to time at Hoku’s,” Hirabayashi says. “But I think this is the most exciting time in the history of the hotel. The new owners want to see different things. We have amazing farmers and fish, and we have the freedom to bring in incredible produce.”

There are some things, however, that will never change at Hoku’s: the ahi dip; the Chinese-style salt and pepper jumbo prawns; the whole fried fish. They’ve been on the menu almost since day one, and any attempt to remove them is met with mass disapproval from regular diners.

“It’s amazing, really, that some of the most popular dishes are just the simple, wok-seared, local-style ones,” Hirabayashi says.

Soon the short menu at Hoku’s might be running out of room, because other dishes are sneaking up and staking their claims as Hoku’s classics. Take the Salt-Crusted Colorado Rack of Lamb, for example. It’s a simple enough dish – well, simple in that “fine dining” sort of way. Herbs de Provence-smothered lamb is wrapped in a rock salt, flour and egg white dough, and baked for about 20 to 30 minutes, then served tableside. As the salt crust is cut by the server, aromas of thyme, basil and sage, with a hint of lavender, fill the dining room. The herbs protect the lamb from overcooking; the salt keeps in moisture. The spectacle is known to evoke the classic When Harry Met Sally reaction, as nearby diners are often heard saying, upon seeing the steaming rack of lamb emerge from the seasoned crust, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

What makes this dish an easy constant are the accompanying vegetables that can be rotated with the seasons. In spring, served with Hauula tomatoes and MA’O Farms fennel and greens, it is a light supper; in winter, with local golden beets and tatsoi or white asparagus, it becomes a hearty, rustic plate to share.

There are only a dozen or so items on the Hoku’s menu, which you might think makes ordering easier. Not really. On a recent visit, I ordered the Chinese House Roast Duck, a beautifully seared, roasted breast served with roti and wok-fried vegetables in a peppery black sauce. My dinner date had the Kurobuta pork, and I forced him to share. There’s nothing that melts as perfectly and as purely on the palate as the fat of the prized black hog.

Hirabayashi starts planning his new dishes a month or two in advance, sourcing produce and creating specials to see how they do in the dining room first.

“Sometimes you create something that you think is a winner, and it doesn’t take off,” he says. “Other times, you send something out and it’s a huge hit right away.”

For the most part, it’s rare that a hotel restaurant is allowed to take on the personality of its chef. And when a hotel has gone through so many owners in as many years as the Kahala Resort has, it’s more remarkable still that Hirabayashi has managed to finally find his voice. Despite

Desserts mimic Wayne hirabayashi’s love of presenting a variation on a theme. and dessert wines are offered as a perfect way to end the evening

his fine-dining career and work at notable restaurants worldwide, you’ll find influences of his Hawaii childhood on the menu no matter what the season.

“I think your childhood foods, the comfort foods you remember, definitely have an influence,” he says. “When I make new dishes, I’m always thinking with a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new.”

With its sparkling dining room, clear windows open to the ocean and gentle evening breezes, Hoku’s always has had a picture-perfect setting. Now, it has a menu and a confident chef to match.

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