OAHU, HAWAII — Most trips to Honolulu, I’ve stayed on Waikiki Beach. Close to the action, for sure. But touristy to the max.
For an alternative on this latest trip, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau offered to put me up a little farther out — but still within walking distance to that hotspot — in The Modern, which opened in 2011 on Ala Moana Boulevard not far from the mega shopping center there.
The Modern lives up to its name. Unlike so many other Hawaiian hotels done up in plenty of loud floral prints, this hotel is all soothing white and warm wood. It’s much more South Beach than Polynesia.
Behind the check–in desk, you’ll spy a catchy art piece of broken surfboards, many of them signed by the surfer sto whom the boards once belonged to.
The lobby also boasts a little subterfuge — a bookcase spanning one wall that pushes aside to reveal a secret space where guests can enjoy coffee in the morning or cocktails at night.
The property has two pools — the Sunrise, a teak one filled with salt water that features piped-in underwater music; and the Sunset, a cobalt-blue, shallow lagoon perfect for glamorous lounging.
Morimoto Waikiki is conveniently located on the premises. The striking restaurant features both indoor and outdoor seating. The famed “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto wasn’t on the premises that night, but the hotel publicist had arranged for my husband and I to enjoy a complimentary five-course omakase menu.
I wish I could say it was sublime, but there were some noticeable low points. As we scanned the regular menu upon sitting down, a particular dish not on the omakase menu caught our eyes: Oyster Foie Gras ($22), which also featured uni. Because California restaurants are banned from selling foie gras now, we thought it would be a treat to have some in Hawaii, where it is still legal. But our server insisted we could not add the dish — even if we insisted we’d pay the extra cost, ourselves. He explained that Chef Morimoto creates his tasting menus with purpose and that adding an additional dish would disrupt its intended progression. Fair enough, except that the omakase we did get seemed all too perfunctory, as dish after dish came out quite rapidly, making it one of the fastest tasting menus I’d experienced. It was rather like speed-dining, where you feel you’re whisked from one dish to another with no lasting impression. It pains me to say that, too, because I’ve eaten Morimoto’s food at special events, where he’s been present, and it was fabulous.
The dinner started with the signature sampler of hamachi and toro tartare served on a mini washboard set in ice. You carefully scrape the finely chopped fish and its accompaniments of wasabi, chives, and creme fraiche onto a tiny paddle, the pour seasoned dipping sauce on it before devouring. It’s playful, if a little cumbersome.
Next, slivers of wonderful amberjack carpaccio rolled up and doused with hot olive oil and soy sauce, leaving it barely cooked.
A sampler of sushi (tuna, hamachi, Kindai, mackerel and red snapper) was fresh and inviting, but the rice just a tad too wet.
The entree was a sampler of a slightly chewy beef fillet, duck breast and seven-spice Kona lobster, which inexplicably had a side dish of lemon creme fraiche with it. The lobster was tender and seasoned well, particularly with hits of cinnamon and star anise, but the lemon cream tasted more like dessert. Why it was even on that plate is a mystery.
Dessert was a perfectly fine coconut custard mochi with banana ice cream balanced in a ring of toasted rice.
The Feral Pig on Kauai
After Oahu, we made our way to sleepy Kauai. Or as one hotel valet joked, “You went from the big city to the retirement home.”
Kauai is much more rural, lush and yes, quiet, than Oahu. When you want a subdued island experience, it’s the place to go.
Thanks to the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, we were guests one night at the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, a time-share resort that features fully equipped suites. In fact, each suite comes complete with a washer and dryer — handy additions when you are running out of clean clothes on vacation.
Next, it was two nights complimentary at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach. The focal point is an expansive pool ringed with Greek columns and soaring palm trees that is just steps away from the beach, where volleyball games are a poplar pastime.
From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to Rice Street, where you’ll find a small selection of shops and restaurants, including The Feral Pig.
We dined at the three-year-old, neighborhood gastropub that features live music regularly, paying our tab but receiving a media discount on the prices.
The pupu platter ($13) comes with some of the most tender fried calamari I’ve had, as well as smoky chicken wings glazed in Guinness to give a hint of bitter hops, and some ho-hum shrimp-cilantro fried wontons.
Fish tacos ($13) come three to a plate on some very fine tortillas that tasted like they were house-made but are actually purchased from a nearby purveyor. They’re filled with blackened ono and pico de gallo. Alongside is a small tumble of tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce leaves dressed ever so slightly in a lime vinaigrette.
The dish to get here is the ($12) Feral Burger. It’s not on the menu. But since your server tells you it’s a special before you order, it’s far from a Secret Menu item. It’s a hefty Kauai beef-pork patty crowned with house-cured pork belly, house-smoked pork, and caramelized onions on a soft taro bun. Juicy, messy and loaded with meaty flavor, it’s the burger you want after a hard night of drinking or a strenuous day of surfing.
Hankering for Hawaii Part I: Taro and Sweet Potato Chips Fried to Order
Hankering for Hawaii Part II: A Taste of Rum
Hankering for Hawaii Part III: Marvelous Maui Dining at Migrant and Ka’ana Kitchen
Hankering for Hawaii Part IV: Dining at Three James Beard Semi-Finalists on Oahu