High above what passes for tourist glitz on the Kona coast of the island of Hawai’i, the town of Hohualoa sits in early 20th century calm. At 1,300 feet elevation on the Hawaiʻi Belt Road, the modern name for the Māmalahoa Highway – Hawaiʻi state Routes 11, 19 and 190 – Hohualoa basks in the lush mountain greenery of Kona coffee country. Well known as an artist colony, it’s also home to one of the island’s top restaurants, Holuakoa Gardens and Café.
Set within lush gardens complete with a meandering koi pond, the café’s open-air tropical wooden structure looks, at first glance, to be as old as the shocking pink 1926 Kona Hotel down the street. In 2001 Barbara Gerrits and chef Wilson Read opened the adjacent Holuakoa Coffee Shop in a small century old Hohualoa building. They rapidly built a reputation for serving freshly made in-house breads, pastries, sandwiches and, of course, Kona coffee. The Holuakoa Gardens and Café’s main building is but a couple years old and architect designed for the restaurant’s specific needs. Yet their story is more than a small café morphing into a successful restaurant; it’s an integral component in the revival of the Hawaiian ahupua’a system.
The menu served to a recent group of visiting journalist, members of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, at Holuakoa Gardens and Café epitomized both the success of the movement, and the realities that, for a restaurant, the product still has to be exceptional. Each dish was a visual and taste delight as well as a virtual road map of the island’s leading small farms. In true locavore fashion Barbara Gerrits and chef Wilson Read purchase much of their organic produce, hormone free meats and sustainable fish and seafood from farms and suppliers within five miles of Hohualoa.
Pupus, Hawaiian tapas, included jewel like diced cured marinated Kona kampachi in a cup of organic romaine. The fish is wild caught and what’s on the menu that day depends of the availability of the local catch. The ocean surrounding the islands is so pristine, Hawaiians frequently consume kampachi and ahi raw or lightly marinated and seasoned in a dish called poke.
A soufflé using Hawaii Island Goat Dairy chevre cheese was as light and colorful as the ʻiʻiwi and ʻapapane feathers used to make royal cloaks. It was paired with marinated organic tomatoes and a macadamia nut basil pesto. The slight acidity of the salad made a pleasant counterpoint to the light but rich soufflé.
Pork has been a staple of the Hawaiian diet since being brought to the islands by the first settlers nearly two millenniums ago. It still takes pride of place on the table and Holuakoa Gardens and Café use all parts of the pig in their kitchen. A fork tender braised loin was served with a medley of local organic vegetables including beets, baby carrots, turnips, new potatoes, hearts of palm and delectable Hamakua Mushrooms.
Waiakea Uka Ranch is a small family operation, like many Hawai’i farms, that specializes in raising grass fed lamb, although they enjoy eating bananas as well. They’re healthy, flavorful and lean, and, unfortunately, there lies an issue. Lean does not always translate into tender. The same issue goes for Hawai’i beef, flavorful and when well braised or ground, both are outstanding. As steaks they can be chewy as they were in a dish that was paired with a perfect medley of mango, peppers and balsamic vinegar.
Likewise, Manalulu Farm raises quail and is well known in the region for its quail eggs. Fed with a diet that includes organically grown fruits and nuts, one can imagine the eggs are rich. But as a free range little bird there’s not much fat on a quail and although bathed in a luscious local cane molasses, soy and ginger glaze, the meat was tough. The kitchen created an excellent hash of breadfruit, purple Hawaiian sweet potatoes, kohlrabi and carrots that would be delicious with quail eggs.
The dessert plate was a sampler of the best of Hawaii sweets. A creamy cheesecake paired Buddha’s Cup 100% Kona coffee with rich Hawaiian chocolate. Chocolate production on the island is undergoing a Renaissance with the state being the only region in the nation both growing and processing cocoa beans. Big Island Bee Honey is gaining an international reputation especially for its extraordinary white honey. Holuakoa Gardens and Café combined Big Island Bee Honey with local vanilla beans in a light frozen yogurt paired with a strawberry papaya sorbet. To gild the lily of this 21st century Hawai’i feast, house made coconut and macadamia nut macaroons were dipped in chocolate.
The tropics understandably are not wine country, and Young’s Market Company in Kailua-Kona made excellent choices especially from Oregon and New Zealand. A hint of raspberries and chocolate in a 2010 Dobbes Family Estate Pinot Noir worked well with the deep flavors of quail and the molasses ginger glaze. The light, barely acidic, citrus notes of a 2011 Wine By Joe Pinot Gris balanced the tomatoes and pesto to counterpoint the rich chevre soufflé. Both wines are from Oregon’s premiere Willamette Valley. The dry raisin tones of a New Zealand 2010 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Bordeaux Blend matched the deep flavor of the braised pork. For dessert, a Trinidadian Zaya Artisanal Sugar Cane Rum as smooth as brandy and a ten-year-old Fonseca Tawny Port could not have been a better selection to compliment chocolate, coffee and fruit sorbets.
Chef Wilson Read was not in the kitchen of Holuakoa Gardens and Café that evening. An intensely hands-on restaurant operation is exhausting. He was on a much-deserved sabbatical hiking in the Himalaya Mountains. The kitchen was in the very talented and imaginative hands of Interim Executive Chef Lynn Sheehan who proved that healthy, organic and local is far more than sprouts on whole grain bread. The shining eyes of both chef Sheehan and Barbara Gerrits that night proved as well that if one shows love and respect for the ‘aina the land will offer up its rewards.