HAWI, KOHALA, HAWAII, August 14, 2014 – In the emerald foothills of Waimea, Merriman’s Restaurant has been a leader in the origination and development of sophisticated Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. In the tiny village of Hawi, Bamboo Restaurant has been a pioneer for two decades in merely serving great food steeped in Hawaiian roots and culture.
The high mountain road that lies between these two delightful establishments, Rt. 250, is one of the most beautiful in all Hawaii, connecting two of its most eclectic and fascinating towns, Waimea and Hawi.
This twelve mile stretch of mountain road rises from the verdant fields and grasslands of Waimea’s ranch and cattle country to the exotic windswept heights of the northernmost stretch of the Kohala Coast and the home village of Kamehameha the Great.
The high road starts on the outskirts of Waimea and quickly climbs several thousand feet to well above the lush rain fed green belt. Take in the views all the way down the Kohala Coast and the summits of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
Proceed along the undulating two lane blacktop through translucent grasslands the color of electric phosphorescent green, between hilltops of volcanic splendor, and alongside ranches containing some of the luckiest cattle on the planet. It is a visual feast for the senses, up in the clouds, surrounded by a verdant cowboy paradise that most wouldn’t think existed in Hawaii.
At the end of the road is the lovely town of Hawi, as remote and unspoiled an outpost likely to be found in Hawaii outside of Hana. Just down the road from Hawi is King Kamehameha’s birthplace in the even quieter town of Kohala. Several miles further, just past the true end of the road, is Palalau Valley and the mystic wonders of its legendary unspoiled beauty.
The old original sugar plantation era buildings in Hawi have been tastefully remodeled and developed into a series of lovely shops, restaurants, and galleries without losing its authentic end of the road character. It also retains its collection of long time personalities and hippie era holdovers in a refreshingly charming way. It’s easy to imagine Hawi as the kind of place where someone could stumble across it once, hang out for a while, and never want to leave.
At the center of Hawi is Bamboo, a restaurant and more in a building built in 1926 and originally used as a hotel. Bamboo has a storied history, a store full of unique Hawaiian themed handcrafted goods, an excellent and expansive art gallery upstairs, and a restaurant that is as epic in its food as it is unpretentious in its presentation. On weekends they also have music with brilliantly talented local musicians playing Hawaiian slack key guitar.
But the best part about Bamboo is the food, where they take local style cooking and make magic with it, or as they call it, Island Style Cuisine.
Thai coconut prawns are effortlessly wonderful, and the pulled pork sandwich with pineapple barbecue sauce is an exquisite signature dish. The main course of Ono is simply fabulous: juicy, tender, firm, and perfectly cooked with a mango, papaya, lilikoi chutney on top, heaven on a plate with two-scoop rice.
Coming back to Waimea across the high road from Hawi is a magical dream. The sun sets in a spectacle of color across the whole Kohala coast before the road descends through the greenbelt and the clouds to the gleaming foothills of Waimea and the steps of Merriman’s Restaurant.
Peter Merriman and his eponymous restaurant was instrumental to defining the concept of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, developing its unique character and approach to quality local foods over the last 25 years with such success that it is now widely imitated across the islands.
The original has never fallen short of its ideal of using the freshest Hawaiian fish, locally grown produce, and local Waimea meats, and the results remain spectacular.
Kauai prawns are fantastic and a duo of Ahi sashimi is a perfect appetizer alongside locally produced grilled Foie Gras. Sauteed Kampachi is always magnificent and macadamia nut crusted Ono with a miso truffle reduction sauce is a sumptuous delight.
Locally raised “butchers cut” filet mignon and Kahua ranch lamb are landmark stand out dishes in a town world renowned for its ranching. The atmosphere is heady and buoyant as the lively dining room throbs with the activity and buzz that comes with being at one of the best restaurants on the island.
Merriman’s has branches on Maui and Kauai as well, but Waimea is the charming and still fabulous original. Relax and drink in the feast of great food with a stellar bottle of Littorai “Thieriot Vineyard” Chardonay, and celebrate the cuisine that is Hawaii at the restaurant that helped create it.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer and lives in Los Angeles.
All photos by Alison Reynolds