Fortunately for many of us, dinner doesn’t always start before dawn at OH-DARK-THIRTY with a daylong expedition on the deep blue sea. We’d never get anything else done, and let’s admit it; catching fish is an art form that few have mastered, and catching enough fish to serve to others is truly on a different level entirely. So when a renowned chef lets it be known that he’s putting a sustainable and local line-to-table program in place as a the cornerstone of a new restaurant, it brings an equally different level of expectation, and respect, to the fine-dining equation. Therein lies the challenge and promise of Mina’s Fish House at the Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu, chef Michael Mina’s latest culinary destination in Hawai‘i.
Hushed conversations drift up from a chartered fishing boat moored at Ko Olina Marina. It is one of the few boats showing signs of life and activity as the island sleeps in for another hour or so. The anticipation of landing a dinner-worthy fish was as palpable as it was unspoken, perhaps in honor of superstition and lore.
Mina invited us to join him for dinner on day one of this new program, and as it turns out, he actually wanted us to be there with him from hour one. The actual invitation that went out was really just to participate in that evening’s dinner at Mina’s Fish House, the “to-table” part, to sample whatever his literal catch of the day became. After all, that final hour or so is the experience that diners will enjoy when visiting the restaurant, and which most reviews mainly focus on. However, this chef’s mind works four steps and twelve hours ahead–at least–of when dish meets table meets diner, and the original invite morphed into an invitation to join the chef and the fishermen as that evening’s catch was found, fished for and filleted. The RSVP was easy: yes to dinner, and yes to bearing witness to the magic and art that happen long before the back of the house team gets their hands on what’s caught.
Mina’s presence at this earliest stage of dinner shed much light on how his mind planned ahead, yet also planned for other outcomes. If we land a large ‘ahi, he’d think aloud, we should get filets, and the head, for the cheeks. Plan B sometimes came up too: …and if we get a small one, we’ll just have to catch a second one before heading in. And then the magic happened—reels sang out with their trademark energy-inducing buzz as ‘ahi struck the live bait. And reality also happened as several got away before the laborious cranking and resting finally landed a 90-pound fish that would ultimately be prepared six ways for the tasting menu at sunset.
If being there on the initial launch of the James Beard Award-winning chef’s line-to-table program on O‘ahu wasn’t exciting enough, what really brought it home was returning to the restaurant after some time had passed for more of an actual guest’s experience, and seeing how the sustainable and local theme had evolved for Fish House diners. With resonant memories of day one with Mina firmly planted in our minds—and social media accounts—we returned for a meal that was more representative of the full dining experience one can expect.
Gentle trade winds wafting under the warmly lit canopy accompany the fading amber light of another incomparable West Side sunset, as a table is set overlooking one of Ko Olina’s signature lagoons. In the distance, a channel maker winks out its semaphore beacon of light, guiding boats safely back to harbor, a subtle reminder of where tonight’s dinner surely came ashore. Most tables at Mina’s Fish House are on an expansive covered lanai that embodies the indoors-is-outdoors casually elegant style, without subjecting guests to the heat of the final hour before dusk, or for those looking to be closer to nature, a fully outdoor lower level offers star, moon and torch-lit tables for evenings where one wants to be close to the warmth of their fire pit. Picture this: you are sitting at a table with a carefully chosen companion of choice, and you are actually gazing out over the very waters where the featured fish was recently caught—a rare setup, even for O‘ahu.
Another rare event is an honest dinner that truly delivers on its promise. From the accurate tableside description of what’s to come from our knowledgeable server (in this particular instance, her name was Sarah), to the artistic plating and perfectly timed drop interval, to the thoughtful wine pairing. Which brings us to the cut-bait-or-fish moment: here’s how the follow-up, line-to-table dining experience went. Since Mina’s Fish House menu doesn’t remain beholden to the wholesale pre-prepped food purveyors, the dishes we sampled that evening may not necessarily be what’ll be offered when you visit. And visit you must. There’s a subtle point of differentiation between a dinner order being taken and one’s dining preferences being noted and conveyed to the team in the kitchen.
The first dishes to appear set the stage, with perfect portions that compel trying most of the starters—including the Wood-fired Shellfish Platter, compris- ing miso butter-broiled shrimp, oysters, lobster and king crab—while leaving enough room for the featured entrèes, maybe. Each may sound familiar, but the garnishing accompaniments and subtle sauces transform and tease one’s palate at every step. The Ahi Tartare, with mint, pear and pine nuts, easing into a Kona Kampachi Crudo with easily half an avo and shishito peppers and pickled mango, followed by a decadent Abalone Spaghetti that’s topped with Osetra caviar, yuzu butter and shaved chives. Of course if you have a party bigger than two, the whole fish is certainly worth trying, deserving equal merit for flavor and presentation. That evening it was the Spice-Crusted, Fried Madai, served with coconut curry Swiss chard, saffron rice and lemon raita.
And when it comes to sweet endings, again, Mina’s Fish House doesn’t disappoint. From the Waiola Coconut Meringue to the Yuzu Crème Fraîche to the indulgent Hawaiian Chocolate Pudding, Mina’s culinary team marries flavors and textures flawlessly in each of their desserts.
If there’s something else beyond Mina’s artful cuisine that bears remembering about dining at Mina’s Fish House, it is that every meal will be different, almost by design. One will naturally put certain favorites on a personal “must have” list, but it is the element of chance and luck out on the water, tempered by the local fishermen’s skills, that deliver an ever-changing selection of the freshest possible fish. Prepare to be delighted and ultimately well pleased throughout the night, and revel in the feeling because it is what will keep you coming back.