Meny at Hoku’s, nestled within the elegant Kahala Resort, it doesn’t appear in the same format as most. Typically a glance to the left, you’ll find fresh salads, soups and decadent starters, followed by main dishes and perhaps some seasonal specials on the right (or below). Instead navigating the dishes being prepared is simply that—a voyage into historical times while also paying homage to the origins of farming, gathering and hunting here in Hawai‘i.
Inspired by multi-Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud in New York City’s Upper East Side, Hoku’s (relatively new) chef de cuisine Eric Oto wanted to create a menu that was progressive and unorthodox when it came to format and first impressions. “We really wanted to highlight, and make it easy, when people look at the whole menu … This is the “seafood section” this is the “farmer section” and each section has a story,” Oto notes. And similarly, Oto’s story of evolution maturing into a leader in the kitchen comes from getting his hands wet in the ocean and immersed in the vital farming culture of the islands.
Oto began fishing when he was just 3 1/2 years old. “I grew up in an old plantation community, and I have been fishing since I can remember with my bamboo pole.” Raised by his loving mother and stepfather who felt passionate about making sure grandma’s recipes lived on. “My stepdad raised me as his own son, he was the one who really got me into cooking. I think he wanted to have peace of mind that I knew how to take care of myself as I got older.”
The Waipahu native recalls fishing, catching and cooking his own food in middle school and presenting his fresh catch to his classmates for show and tell. “I brought this whole wok set-up and showed the class the fish I caught, then how to cook it.” Oto went on to attend Leeward Community College’s culinary arts program and parlayed his knowledge of cultivating the land and sea at Halekulani and then the Four Seasons Resort O’ahu at Ko Olina before settling in and making his home at The Kahala Hotel & Resort.
Much of Oto’s life lessons, notable experiences and fondest memories are from the days he spent sitting beside the sea in Hau‘ula. “As a kid I would say I want to eat fish, so my dad would say you have to be able to catch the fish, clean the fish and cook the fish.”
Oto joined the award-winning team at Hoku’s in August 2017. Since then, his love of local flavors paired with the freshest ingredients have led to a “new era” in elevated dining at the restaurant. Much of Hoku’s new dinner menu is centered around specialty local fish, native seafood and produce harvested from the island’s top growers.
The majority of Oto’s menu is a collaboration and divided into categories aimed to aid with identification: Lawai‘a “The Fisherman,” Holo Kahiki “The Voyager,” Mahi‘ai “The Farmer,” and Ka Ho’okele “The Navigator.” Based on where the ingredients are sourced, the dishes will be placed in their respective section of the menu. This format also lends itself to a more intimate approach from the servers. Guests are more engaged and staff is able to tell the stories behind each dish, offer anecdotes, origin and convey inspiration.
Beginning with the Lawai’a section, all of the main ingredients are fished from the sea. Lawai‘a (fisherman) also implies there’s a level of respect and adoration for everything that comes from the ocean. You’ll find classic dishes including the classic Hoku’s staple Fried Ahi Poke Musubi and Seafood Tower of crab, lobster and assorted sashimi. But one of the new additions to this section is the Local Fisherman’s Trio, which showcases kampachi (Hawaiian yellowtail) tartare, ama ebi (shrimp) and Oto’s latest creation, the Spicy Ahi Pokesada.
You’re probably asking yourself, “what is a pokesada?” This latest creation combines Hawai‘i’s traditional, seasoned, fresh, cubed fish, with another Hawaiian staple, the malasada. This isn’t your ordinary malasada as spicy poke is found within the dough, offering a savory combination of textures, flavors (and local childhood memories). “I needed to make some hors d’oeuvres, so I used burger brioche buns and a cookie cutter to cut the bread. I had all these pieces of scrap bread and thought I would add water to it and make dough. Then I had this idea to put spicy ‘ahi in it and I jokingly dropped it in the fryer.” The crisp brown brioche bread has buttery flavor and dense texture, mean- while the addition of poke provides a touch or spice paired with fresh fish.
Another portion of the menu is the Holo Kahiki or “The Voyager” section. Within this area of the menu, you will find continental selections with a localized spin. Each plate is inspired by common staples found on menus around the globe but crafted using Hawaiian ingredients and global influences. The Asian Caesar Salad offers a black garlic miso dressing and specialty heirloom tomatoes with hearts of palm. The Charred Spiced Octopus was by far the best octopus I’ve ever had. The meat was tender and perfectly seasoned with Peruvian potatoes, Ho Farm tomatoes and turmeric soubise. The influences from Peru are pronounced in this starter, as it’s a play on the traditional Lomo Saltado, which includes marinated and saute?ed sirloin, instead of steak the flavors of the Lomo Saltado are infused into the octopus.
For the pasta lovers and seafood lovers a decadent whole lobster carbonara really engages your palate. The fresh lobster is first gently butter poached in the classic style. The carbonara is essentially traditional with the egg yolk, pancetta bacon and bucatini. “That’s my personal favorite as far as pastas, because the texture goes well with that dish.” An impressive presentation the lobster includes its tail, knuckles and claws then sprinkled with ginger white- fish roe which utilizes local ginger from the islands and al dente sugar snap peas for texture and color. A very generous portion, the lobster is sweet and perfectly executed and the addition of the roe with the peas adds elements of flavor and brightens up the profile of this main.
Moving toward another section of the menu, both fresh vegetables and farmed meats come together to form the Mahi‘ai, “The Farmer” portion. Here, you’ll see an enticing duo of local goat cheeses from both Surfing Goat on Maui and Hawaii Island Goat Dairy paired with spicy liliko‘i and vibrant beets, along with a fresh seasonal salad of greens and grains.
The Mustard Crusted Kurabota Pork Chop is an outstanding addition to the menu with many earthy elements accompanied by enticing highlights. The chop is from family-run Snake River Farms in Idaho. It’s grilled with a mustard herb crust massaged with panko and served over a pure?e of kabocha pumpkin and Brussels sprouts. Paniolo Whiskey from Maui’s Hali‘imaile Distilling is reduced with a little bit of local honey and a touch of a veal glace?. The pork is moist, perfectly prepared and enhanced by the range of sweet meets bitter and primal.
On the seasonal menu dubbed Ka Ho‘okele, “The navigator” section, you’ll find Kona Kampachi Carpaccio, Crispy Moi (Pacific Threadfin) and the nori Butter Crusted Day Boat Scallops. Served with a corn and squash succotash and mushroom cauliflower pure?e. The phenomenal U-10 large scallops with savory crust have me salivating at this very moment.
The journey and discovery of this menu is one of history, comfort and innovation. Be prepared to take a new voyage to a familiar place with a steady navigator by your side. “The menu is my playground,” says Oto. “not to be stuck in Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine or fusion, I didn’t want to be tied down to a certain
style all the time.”
Hoku’s, The Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave., 739-8760, hokuskahala.com