Hawaii Eats: NatuRe Waikiki, Oahu
Honolulu, Oahu, HI — For a truly special experience, snag a seat at the chef’s counter at natuRe Waikiki — if you can.
The two-story restaurant opened in 2022 with plenty of outdoor seating on the first floor with an a la carte menu. But the best spot in the restaurant is definitely at the 10-seat chef’s counter, where Chef Nae Ogawa and her young team hold court in the open kitchen.
I had many wonderful meals on my trip to Hawaii last week. But by far, one of the most outstanding was the tasting menu at this gem that Honolulu Magazine named “Best New Restaurant” in 2022.
To be honest, natuRe (pronounced the French way, “nah-tur) was not even on my radar. On a sun-and-sand, sandals-and-shorts kind of vacation, I wasn’t necessarily even contemplating an upscale, fine-dining dinner.
But friend Sarah Burchard deserves special thanks for steering me to it. The former chef at San Francisco’s Barbacco, Burchard moved to Honolulu more than six years ago to become a successful food writer. In fact, anyone planning a trip to Hawaii should check out her online site for tips on must-visit places. When she’s not writing or volunteering her time for all manner of community eco projects, she is a server at natuRe. So, when she recommended the chef’s counter there, I knew she wouldn’t steer me wrong.
The chef’s counter is indeed indoors, but exterior doors are left open for greater airflow. There’s also a small terrace just outside on the second floor, where the tasting menu can also be enjoyed.
Two tasting menus are offered — a regular one ($120) and a plant-based one ($100). A wine pairing (6 pours) is $55. There’s also a “natuRe pairing” (6 glasses) that gets a little more creative with both wines and cocktails. Lastly, there’s even a non-alcoholic pairing (6 kinds) for $30.
My husband and I both chose the regular tasting menu, with him opting for the “natuRe pairing” while I had the wine one.
The tasting menu moves at a smooth clip, lasting close to 2 1/2 hours, with no real lags between courses. A clever touch is the QR code on the printed menu. Scan it with your phone and it will take you to web pages of more detailed information about each dish and beverage. It’s a great resource for taking a deeper dive into the provenance and sustainability of key ingredients, and notable techniques used in the dishes.
After hand towels are brought to the table, settle in and get ready for a parade of dishes punctuated simultaneously with both delicacy and powerful depth of flavor.
Ogawa was the former sous chef at Paris, the French restaurant that existed in the same spot pre-pandemic. When it morphed into the French-Hawaiian natuRe combing out of that turbulent time, she was elevated to executive chef. Born in Japan, she cooked at Michelin two-starred Narisawa in Tokyo and the now-shuttered Bouley in New York, before moving to Hawaii.
Since we opted for all three supplemental menu items, our first bite was the first listed, a Kumamoto oyster on the half shell ($6) with sea beans that was plump, icy, and invigorating.
On the other end of the spectrum, next came something piping hot right out of the fryer. The first nosh on the actual tasting menu brought Hawaiian sweet Ewa corn kernels fashioned with vegan bechamel sauce into creamy fritters fried in a gossamer beer batter. A hail of finely grated Italian summer truffles covered the top of these two-bite delights.
In accordance with Ogawa’s philosophy of supporting the land, she takes pride in featuring Maui Nui venison. Axis deer are an invasive species that have wrecked havoc on Hawaii’s agriculture. Maui Nui humanely traps and harvests these wild deer and sells the nutritious meat.
At natuRe, the thinly cut loin arrives carpaccio-style with a good deal of showmanship — hidden underneath a glass dome filled with smoke. When it’s lifted, the vivid fuchsia dish comes into focus with the near-paper thin slices dotted with raw beets and local Sweetland Farms chevre for just a touch of fat with this lean meat. The veil of smoke is not just for looks. Instead, it imparts a lingering smokiness to the whole dish that doesn’t overpower but enhances it. There’s a garden earthiness to the dish and a deep smokiness to each bite that you’d swear could only be achieved by hours of smoking in an actual smoker.
If you opt for the second supplement, as we did, you’ll get an accompanying spoonful of Royal Osetra caviar (3.5 ounces for $20), with tiny, sweet-briny eggs that you can enjoy solo or spread atop the venison.
Kona abalone takes center stage in the next course. Toothsome yet so tender with almost the texture of shiitake mushroom, it’s sauteed with cubes of jicama, then served with a viscous, savory sauce made with egg and veal bone broth, as well as the liver from the abalone so that nothing goes to waste. It eats almost like a more languid chawanmushi. Fine shards of fresh ginger top a garnish of sauteed fiddlehead fern. Stir it all together so that the fresh warmth of the ginger permeates everything beautifully.
A classic galantine arrives next, made with Big Island rabbit that’s boned out, then rolled up around farce made with its heart and liver, before being poached, rendering it moist and tender. A swipe of fennel and herb puree lends a touch of anise that also brings out the garden freshness of locally grown haricot vert, snow peas, pea tendrils, and grapes.
Swordfish is cooked sous vide confit-style that gives this meaty fish a surprising tenderness. Underneath is a velvety sunchoke puree with profound nutty taste and on top is a lively red cabbage sauerkraut. What catches your eyes most is the pink foam on the plate, frothed from the fermented red cabbage liquid to give a quick burst of piquant earthiness.
The paired wine for this dish actually hails from my home area of the Santa Clara Valley. The 2021 Margins Mourvedre is a lively natural wine made with organic grapes with notes of guava, peaches, and leather.
The crumble garnish on the swordfish is from the house-baked sourdough, made with a starter that Burchard brought with her from San Francisco. How cool is that?
You get to taste more of the bread with the next course. Crusty, chewy and tangy, a small slice is served with seaweed butter to go with the Big Island filet mignon that will truly surprise. Filet mignon is prized for its tenderness, but not so much for its flabby taste. This grass-fed filet, though, is astonishingly beefy tasting, like that of a ribeye. That’s because it’s cooked sous vide, then smoked over kiawe (Hawaiian mesquite). The result is beef that’s the best of both worlds — with a melt-in-your-mouth suppleness plus robust flavor.
Small Kine Farm’s keiki mushroom tops accent the dish while its stems are cooked down to make a savory espuma. Local peppercorns plus jus from the beef and a touch of cream make up the classic French sauce of au poivre that lends a nice warmth. The dish is finished with thin raw slices of mushroom plus crispy Tomme cheese tuille. Since we opted for the third supplement ($30), there were also shaved Italian summer truffles. Take a bite with everything at once and enjoy how the complex taste just lingers.
The naturE pairing with the beef was particularly clever, an Old Fashioned made with Koloa K’au’i Coffee Dark Rum, Madre chocolate bitters and chocolate morsels. Coffee and chocolate both have that earthy bitter edge that echoes that of the mushrooms in the dish.
Dessert is an additional cost, so if you’re full at this point, you don’t necessarily have to indulge. The restaurant graciously brought two desserts to us on the house: Manoa chocolate terrine ($17) and local sweet potato mont-blanc ($16).
Oahu’s bean-to-bar chocolate is used in this smooth, thick, rich chocolate terrine that’s like a flourless chocolate cake. It’s garnished with sea salt meringue cylinders, macadamia nut crumble, and vanilla bean ice cream.
The mount blanc is a fun one that looks like a kid’s Play-Doh pumper has squeezed out purple spirals into a tall mound. The purple sweet potato mont blanc is sweet, nutty and starchy tasting, and hides a center of vanilla bean ice cream.
Lastly, there are heart-shaped vegan chocolate truffles made with maple syrup, pistachios, and macadamia nuts.
Tomorrow, you can go back to poke bowls and plate lunches. But on this night, you’ll be very glad you planted yourself in a prime seat for a taste of just how special elevated Hawaiian cuisine can be.