Fine Dining Gem

Island-fresh ingredients and fabulous wines make Azul at Ihilani an award-winning affair

There are a few things you probably already know about Azul at Ihilani:

It’s a perennial winner of the coveted AAA Four Diamond Award.

It offers an impressive wine program.

And it’s a bit of a drive from Waikiki.

Here, however, are a few things that may comes as a surprise:

The menu features fresh fish, aged steaks, organic meats and locally grown herbs and vegetables.

Service is exceptional.

And on a light-traffic evening, it’s really only a 30-minute drive from downtown Honolulu.

I’ve always counted Azul among my favorite restaurants in Hawaii, and after almost 15 years of visiting – even through various chefs and menu incarnations – the sense of peace and isolation surrounding the Ihilani resort (and within the restaurant itself) is one that continues to take my breath away. Hotel restaurants have discarded their reputation for uninspiring food served to a captive audience, but Azul worked this out years ago. “We’ve always had a reputation for excellent food and service,” says Azul manager, Sean Donahue. “Now we’re building our reputation on locally grown and organic ingredients, too.”

Originally conceived with a Mediterranean theme, Azul changed its culinary focus two years ago and has seen a steady increase in business ever since.

The switch to local produce grown by nearby MA’O Organic Farms in Waianae and on the Big Island’s Hamakua Farms, along with a focus on fresh island fish and prime steaks, has re-energized the restaurant.

“It’s been really great for us,” says Ihilani’s food and beverage director, Dan Reid. “The menu switch was relatively easy, and guests love the fish and steak concept.”

Start with a glass of Perrier Jouet ($18) or one of the restaurant’s signature martinis as you peruse the menu in the intimate bar with views across a small lagoon. Wines are a sophisticated mix of world-renowned names and offerings from lesser-known but highly regarded vineyards. Caymus Conundrum White Blend ($70), Far Niente Chardonnay ($99), Cakebread Cellars Merlot ($120), Stag’s Leap Petite Syrah ($80) and Dan Duck-horn’s fruity, chewy, marvelous Merlot ($99), are all served, impressively, in oxygenated Eisch stemware.

There’s an interesting twist to the wine program and one that shows a remarkable level of ingenuity – the restaurant has its own wine store.

“We were carrying a heavy inventory because of our extensive wine program,” explains Reid, “so we decided to open a wine store within the hotel and let our guests browse, taste and buy wines themselves.”

Azul waiter and wine connoisseur Stewart Silva mans the store on Fridays and Saturdays, hosting informal wine tastings and using the opportunity to promote both wines and Azul’s menu.

“Stewart is so enthusiastic about our wines, and guests enjoy the novelty of being able to buy from our well-stocked cellar,” says Reid. “We keep the prices competitive, and we encourage guests to bring their wines (for a $20 corkage fee) to dinner at Azul.”

The nightly menu includes five or six fresh fish preparations (depending on the morning catch at the Honolulu Fish Auction), along with more robust entrees like Colorado Rack of Lamb ($38) marinated and served over a port wine sauce, and Organic Kurobuta Pork ($32), broiled and topped with a citrus glaze of butter and Ka’u oranges. Steaks include Aged Bone-in Tenderloin ($39), a 12-ounce New York Sirloin ($36) and Aged Rib Eye ($39).

One of Azul’s best-selling dishes (and the one to order if you love seafood) is a two-pound Kona Lobster ($48) that comes grilled and served with house-made fettuccine, clams, shrimp and lobster meat tossed in a spicy tomato basil sauce.

With an elegantly furnished dining room and a refreshingly accommodating staff, it’s easy to relax into the luxury of Azul, and easier still to believe you’re dining on a Neighbor Island and not within a drive of bustling Waikiki.

From locally grown heirloom tomatoes stacked in vibrant yellow and orange towers atop Maui onions and Kula basil, to grilled eggplant with Maui surfer goat cheese, Big Island hearts of palm tossed with prosciutto and manchego cheese, to big eye tuna, snapper and onaga and on through a final taste of French-pressed 100 percent Hawaiian coffee, Azul brings Island ingredients from the land and the ocean to the table.

Off the run-of-the-mill tourist radar and tucked away in its own corner of Pacific paradise, Azul offers a fine dining experience that’s easily among the best in the Islands.

Azul Restaurant
Ihilani Resort and Spa
Open for dinner nightly from 6 to 9 p.m.

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