Taste the flavor of Hualalai’s Pahui’a restaurant

There are those who argue that Hawaii has no seasons. “You have no winter,” visitors exclaim, unaware of snow on Mauna Kea’s summit or temperatures that cool the evenings from October until March. And while it’s true that our seasons may not be obvious in their arrival, with neither roaring winds nor bursts of new blooms, talk to a farmer or a chef and you’ll soon see that winter, spring and fall are as much a part of Hawaii as the seemingly endless summer.

“Our food is seasonal,” says James Babian, executive chef of the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. “And our menus reflect those changes.”

With a renewed focus on Island-grown foods, the menu at Pahui’a, the resort’s signature restaurant, is exciting, innovative and made up almost entirely of local produce. Hawaiian grown abalone, poi, Kona kampachi, baby leeks, Waimea fennel, mushrooms, bok choy, duck, beef, vanilla beans and freshly harvested moi, are just some of the new items showcased on the menu at one of Hawaii’s most beautiful restaurants.

But having a world-class restaurant is about more than oceanside dining and a rotating menu, because no matter how stunning the location or how seasonal the ingredients, a restaurant’s reputation is founded on what guests come to eat and on the dishes they anticipate on their return. Fortunately, the importance of this is not lost on Babian, who’s not just an experienced chef, but a man who loves and appreciates food.

Babian has an easy rapport with the local Big Island farmers, who grow almost anything he asks them to. “From the plant to the plate is how we see it,” he says simply. “Our role here is not to overcomplicate food, rather to enhance it.” Babian insists the restaurant’s focus is seasonal and artisanal, different from the ubiquitous regional cuisine found on most fine dining menus today. “We work with farmers,” says Babian, “so we’re always thinking about the season ahead of us and the next three months or so, especially when we ask them to grow special ingredients.”

In the Pahui’a kitchen, sous chef Stephen Lyons has spent the better part of the past three months working on a new menu using some of the most dramatic ingredients the Hawaiian islands have to offer. “We have the ocean as a focus,” he says, “but we also have this incredible produce.” Ingredients like heirloom tomatoes, hearts of palm, goat cheese, vanilla beans, leeks, bok choy, mushrooms, fennel pollen and corn find their way to his kitchen alongside wild ferns like warabi, ho’i’o and pipinola, all to create a menu that speaks of the Big Island.

Try the baby abalone, tiny and perfect in their shimmering pearly shells, grilled simply to bring out their natural sweetness and maritime flavor, served with a coriander chimichurri and a single baby apricot. Or Kona Kampachi Fire and Ice, where pepper-crusted kampachi is seared then served with a cooling Big Island cucumber sorbet. Or try the Sauteed Honolulu Moi, butterflied, stuffed with pork and served tail-on over baby leek confit and a blend of Island shoots on Waimea fennel cream, if you want a dish that tastes as beautiful as it looks.

Local ingredients may rule at Pahui’a, but they’re not exclusive. “We understand that our diners are global,” says Lyons of guests (who pay upwards of $725 to stay at the Four Seasons), and a local food-savvy clientele. “So you’ll always find certain things like oysters, caviar, beef, lobster and duck on the menu.”

But while food is obviously centerstage here, it’s impossible to ignore Pahui’a’s location and design. At first glance, you’d think that the giant seawater aquarium at the restaurant’s entrance would be the feature. The aquarium (the meaning of pahui’a in Hawaiian) is just a taste of what’s to come and a reminder that this is a restaurant where the ocean rules. With tables set a few feet from the rocky, coastline beach, Pahui’a is so integrated into its small corner of the Big Island that the restaurant feels as though it’s part of the natural landscape. It’s arrestingly beautiful. Sit at one of the tables on the outdoor lanai, a few feet from the waves and it’s easy to feel you’re in one of the most beautiful dining spots on earth.

If you can, get to the dining room right before sunset, as the sky changes from blue to orange and purple and then into the blue-black of early evening. The colors can be breathtaking. The first time I tried the Roasted Baby Beets (a platter of golden and ruby beets with Big Island goat cheese and candied pecans), it was just as the sun was setting, and I remember looking out at the dark oranges and purple hues of the sky and then back to the golden yellow, pinks and red on my plate and thinking that the dining experience at Pahui’a is as much about color and art as it is about food.

And if you still need convincing that Babian and his crew are devoted to the use of local produce then imagine this: poi vinaigrette. It is sensational over mochiko-dusted sweet white Mexican shrimp and seared diver scallops. The plump, juicy scallops sit atop a salad of lomi tomato and shrimp on a bed of pureed hearts of palm and edamame. The poi brings a slightly sour taste, and naturally, the color purple to the plate. But try these dishes while you can, because a summer menu is about to debut, followed by yet another change in winter.

“We want to create an extraordinary dining experience for our guests,” says Babian, “and that means creating food that’s unique and innovative and culturally connected.”

For anyone who still believes we don’t have seasons in Hawaii, go visit Pahui’a. These four seasons never tasted so good.

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