Big Island Italian restaurant Mi’s Waterfront Bistro moves from its longtime spot in Kealakekua to Kailua-Kona.
Earlier this year, one of hawai’i island’s most treasured, hidden boutique eateries made a long awaited move from quiet kealakekua to the heart of kailua-kona village. Mi’s Italian Bistro operated happily to a nightly full house of devoted fans in its modest, 32-seat storefront space in a decidedly downtown location for more than seven years.
This May, the rumored relocation became reality when owners, chef Morgan Starr and front-of-house maven Ingrid Chan (partners in business and life) opened the doors to their newly re-christened Mi’s Waterfront Bistro on Kailua-Kona’s historic Waterfront Row wharf. “We went from just over 30 seats in Kealakekua to 90 seats here, including outdoor dining on our expansive over-water lanai,” Starr says. “Of course, with the larger space comes a much larger staff, as well” that means incredible freedom for me. Freedom to create, to mentor and finally enjoy some quality time off with my young family.”
He credits the latter to the experienced, highly talented culinary and front of house teams he’s assembled. “I have complete confidence not only in their expertise, but in their dedication to excellence whether I’m in the kitchen or not,” Starr says.
Expansion aside, at its core, Mi’s Waterfront Bistro retains all the charm of a favorite neighborhood restaurant. Old friends or new, guests are welcomed as part of the ‘ohana, and the professional staff delivers impeccable service with plenty of aloha.
With sweeping ocean and coastline views, a casually elegant ambiance, including pots filled with fresh herbs just an arms-length reach from the kitchen, the vibe is at once energetic yet comfortably relaxed. The sophisticated bar/lounge offers an all-day bar menu and mixes up some of the most innovative – and delicious – specialty cocktails on-island. The Aperol Spritzer, house-infused Rosemary Vodka and an impressive selection of wines by the bottle or glass score exceptionally high points.
It’s Starr’s take on contemporary Italian cuisine, however, that consistently outshines the stunning views and sublime beverages. At just 39, he has earned the reputation of a “super wunderkind kid” who uses old world techniques, house-made pasta, sauces and bread, a bounty of Hawai’i Island-grown produce, fish and beef to produce dishes of bold flavors, exceptional quality and presentation.
Hardly an overnight sensation, Starr’s path in the restaurant industry started at an early age. “The day after I turned 14, I started washing dishes at Macaroni’s Ristorante in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon. By the time I was 16, I was in charge of the kitchen with a staff of 9,” he says.
What started out as simply a part-time job to help with his family’s expenses, quickly became a passion for Italian cooking. With the encouragement of one of his chef mentors he pursued formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Following graduation in 1997 with a solid grounding in both French and Italian cuisine, Starr remained clearly aligned with an Italian approach to his personal cooking style and the knowledge that what drives him is “really just wanting the world to eat better.”
Better as in fresh and healthily prepared foods, he says. “It seems I have always been on the side of Italian-style cooking – much more of a refined “grandma’s comfort food” approach than haute Francophile cuisine originally defined as food of the royals,” Starr says.
Before arriving on Hawai’i Island in 2001, Starr honed his skills in a number of respected kitchens crisscrossing the nation, and ranging from corporate hotels to boutique inns and catering services located across the U.S. It was the recommendation of one of his professional colleagues that catapulted him across the Pacific to accept a post as sous chef at the internationally acclaimed Hualalai Resort on the toney Kona-Kohala Coast.
Six years later, after developing a devoted following at the five-diamond luxury residential resort and after embarking on a nearly two-year sabbatical traveling throughout South America and Southeast Asia expanding their knowledge of world cuisine, Starr and Chan opened Mi’s Italian Bistro in 2007.
Now, having dropped the word Italian from its moniker, Mi’s Waterfront Bistro continues to serve Hawai’i Island’s most flavorful and memorable Italian food with just a few hints of typically Asian and South American ingredients in some of its signature dishes.
The Spicy Fettuccini entrée, for example, showcases morning-caught fish dusted with moderately fiery spices associated with “south of the border” flavors combined with farm fresh produce more typically found in Asian dishes – sweet sugar peas and bok choy, for example.
Combined with the perfectly tender, al dente preparation of the fettucine, this is a dish not-to-be-missed.
In contrast, the simple and traditionally prepared Mi’s Signature Shrimp Scampi starter is delicious and classically Italian to its core. Lightly grilled shrimp share the plate with just-picked micro-greens all served on a sublime Meyer lemon garlic sauce.
Another starter, the chowder with locally grown Kabocha, ‘Ulu and Sweet Corn, and a toasted Pumpkin oil drizzle is, with respect, arguably better than anything your grandmother served up!
While a committed champion of locally-grown ingredients, at times consistent quality and flavor win out, Starr says. A perennial favorite, Grilled Rack of Lamb served with Hamakua mushrooms, sun-dried tomato polenta and sauteed green beans in a Chianti demi-glaze, features prized New Zealand lamb.
“I am always looking for a steady, reliable source of outstanding Hawaiian grown lamb and believe that will be a reality at some point in the future. In the meantime, my goal is to serve the highest quality ingredients available from the world market,” Starr says.
The menu also includes vegetarian and gluten-free options, including the Chowder and one of the regular nightly specials: Eggplant Parmesan “Lasagne.” It features rough-cut slices of eggplant prepared to al dente perfection with layers of roasted tomato sauce and cheese. Rustic Italian at it’s very best!
In keeping with the theme, sinfully succulent desserts include such Italian favorites as tiramisu, chocolate torte and seasonally fresh fruit sorbets.
By Margaret Kearns
Photography by Adam Glickstein