I apologize for my writing absence, however I have been journaling a recent trip to San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma for a future blog – in particular a memorable excursion to Coombsville – the southeastern end of Napa Valley, where we enjoyed the people, the culture, and some very spectacular food and wines.
Back to Kona!
At long last, Sam has arrived in Keauhou. Ever since he closed the very popular Kaloko Industrial warehouse location years ago (remember sitting on your alcohol-packed cooler in the parking lot suckin’ em up while waiting for a coveted table??), the locals have been waiting patiently for a new venue. And what better place than the hilltop perch of the former Wendy’s at Keauhou!
Go on, admit it – you won’t be the only one that thought those magnificent views were wasted on a fast-food establishment. If you’ve been to Wendy’s Keauhou, you know what view I am talking about! The panoramic one that smacked you in the face everytime you sat outside to munch on those square burgers. Certainly the drive up window was handy for buying a few baked potatoes with all the fixings to go with your grilled steak on the lanai. Sam, in his infinite wisdom, kept the window for those called in orders and quick pickups- if you can get through the tight parking lot, that is…
And today, faced with just such a situation and log jam of cars fronting the restaurant, I found a space across “Kam III” road, at the entry to Lifecare beyond the stoplight. Parallel parking in Kona is practically unheard of and I found myself reversing a couple of times – each time running into that darn curb. I finally wedged the Xterra in between a County vehicle (?) and a very pricey BMW convertible, trying not to tap either one.
Rehabilitating most of Wendy’s building shell, Sam and his team have managed to create a paean to island-style indoor/outdoor dining with an edge. Hard surfaces (reminding us that we live on a volcano) such as concrete floors, granite tabletops, loft-high ceilings and metal rollup doors contribute to the industrial character. On the lanai, the theme is carried through with lava rock base tables, granite tops and metal firepits filled with glass marbles. Outdoor cushioned wicker chairs invite you to sit and savor a Tropical Sangria while breathing in that spectacular view.
The bar is nicely outfitted with dark stained wood cabinetry and bamboo embellishments. Beer taps are integrated into the stern of a boat, aptly named “The Short Bait”. I wonder if it’s one of the unfortunate tsunami victims of Keauhou Bay’s recent surge.
Behind the bar, glass panels feature whimsical paintings of most of the available fresh catch that will be featured at sometime or other in the restaurant. Since this is Kona, the front half of a blue marlin ‘grander’ hangs above it all – probably a survivor of Don Drysdale’s in the shopping center.
Speaking of … many of Sam’s employees are former Drysdale alumni, and seem mighty pleased to be mauka (uphill) and working again. Their enthusiasm is infectious and makes small faux pas much more forgiveable by happy diners. Our server today, Mehana, was all smiles and aloha as she busied herself around the floor. Even our busboy cracked jokes while efficiently keeping our water glasses filled.
Four iced teas ($2.50 ea) appeared at the onset as Mehana circled the table for our lunch order. The fresh catch today was Opah – aka Moonfish, and I opted for the plate lunch which featured two good-sized pieces of fish sautéed gently in a light shoyu butter, green salad and hapa-haole rice (a mixture of brown and white) for $12. Plate lunch choices come with the following selections: brown or white rice, mashed potato, green or potato salad. Salad dressings today were Sam’s Sesame or Wasabi-Sesame.
Carol’s Noodle Mania selection contained a generous serving of tender pieces of marinated and grilled chicken, stir-fried crispy vegetables, tender chow mein noodles, all served in a large deep-fried fresh made tortilla shell for $10.
Wavering between the much-touted ‘Papa Sam’s Absolutely Incredible Beef Stew’ and ‘Fresh Fish and Chips’, Terri settled on the latter for $13. The opah was dipped in house made beer batter and deep fried just enough to allow the batter to crisp and darken yet keep the fish tender inside. Accompanied by cole slaw and skinny fries, the dish seemed to satisfy Terri – until she saw an enticing bowl of beef stew at the neighboring table. Vowing to return this evening for dinner with her hubby, she was crestfallen to learn that the Kai Lanai was already booked solid.
Mei only had eyes for the “Fried Poke Salad” served in a giant deep fried shell for $14. Succulent chunks of gently marinated fish nestled in with fresh island greens on a bed of somen noodles garnished with crushed nori and sesame seed made this a winner. And really, could you imagine a Sam Choy restaurant without poke? He is, afterall, the godfather of the wildly popular poke contest that has frankly elevated the art of poke making to a fiercely competitive and grand level among chefs – both professional and amateur.
The menu is simple and uncomplicated, reflecting the casual tropical ambiance and flavorful dishes. Laughter abounds as you are content to dwell over your meal and take it all in. Staffers bustle around you and the kitchen hums behind a large viewing window. There is so much to experience that you don’t want to leave.
The Kai Lanai is definitely the place to see and be seen. Uncle Charlie Brown waded over to our table from the bar because he wanted to bestow his special aloha to “Charlie’s Angels”. Something about his infectious laugh and large personality led Terri to mistake him for the proprietor – until she realized that Sam is at least 10 years younger, and many pounds slimmer after a health scare convinced him to lose his infamous girth. Nevermind – we all had a good laugh and kept the ‘mana’ flowing all afternoon.
Sam the (svelte) man actually made it over to our table to get his well deserved kudos and happily basked in the compliments. Joking that he hoped we’d all be around in six months after things settle in, we assured him that we would spread the word and be frequent guests ourselves.
Mehana tempted us with a decadent ‘Waffle-Fried Ice Cream’ ($7): Vanilla bean infused ice cream encased in waffle crust and briefly fried then drizzled with a creamy caramel sauce. I could borrow adjectives from a D.H. Lawrence novel such as’sultry’, ‘decadent’ or ‘wanton’ but it wouldn’t even come close. You put it together and order one when you visit.
Post-meal Lua Report:
When Terri returned from the Wahine’s room, she informed us that it would “blow our minds”. With that statement, I will post the photos and you can see for yourself why I stood in front of the sink for a few long minutes, trying to turn the water on. Absolutely a work of art, the vibrant sinks make the artful statement and dazzle on entry. Glass mosaic tile borders, mocha travertine and riotously colored framed fish prints complete the package.
It’s always wonderful to see a local boy gain success in his endeavors. It’s even better when they return home. Sam Choy is so well-liked by just about everyone on island that most locals will visit Kai Lanai just to see him in person. Of course, the views could entice them too!
Located at the top of Keauhou Shopping Center (yes-high above Long’s).
reservations: 808.333-3434 or online at
September 29, 2011
Mei returned (I believe she eats 3 squares a day at Sam’s because as she puts it “I have been there many times, so close to my home :-)…. no more cooking…..breakfast is very ono too.” Cindy, Joann and Carolyn were all able to join the party this week and had as much fun as we did the first time. It appears that Sam now recognizes the Kona Babes (probably because Mei is a very frequent customer), and came by the table for his group hug and photo op. Sam – you are really missing out by not hiring Mei as your P.R. person!
A BRIEF UPDATE:
Went back last night for dinner with friends and thankfully remembered the camera! Sat at the bar waiting for friends as all the lanai tables were occupied, and met a nice man who works for Kimpton Hotels in San Francisco (the Prescott Hotel near Union Square). He was very ecstatic to be on the Big Island – his first visit – and exclaimed that he now understood what the buzz was all about: “…waking up to the smell of tropical flowers in the air …gentle breeze off the blue, blue ocean… a wonderful casualness about everyone… lots of smiles and friendly people…”. He was staying downhill at the Sheraton on Keauhou Bay and the hotel staff recommended Sam Choy’s as an alternative to another meal in the hotel. I forgot to ask him for his business card, but just googled his hotel and it looks fabulous! I’ll have to keep it on my bulletin board for (hopefully) another trip to the Bay area someday.
After being seated by our friendly hostess, we were fussed over by our attentive server (who announced that she was so happy to be there – another reason eating there is a pleasure). She promptly took more drink orders, then returned quickly to announce the fresh fish offerings. I noticed that it was much warmer at our dinner table than at the bar – probably due to the fact that the bar was close to the outdoor lanai and the dining mezzanine was closer to the kitchen. Nevertheless, the energetic vibe of Kai Lanai was enjoyable and added to the evening’s enjoyment.
Steve, an old bird hunter from Alaska, ordered the Ka’u Orange Duck ($22) – crispy roasted skin, yet tender inside, with Ka’u orange sauce: ka’u (valencia) oranges, macadamia nuts, shoyu, five-spice and honey, and regrettably paired with a glass of Hogue Merlot. A Pinot would probably have been a better choice given the honey and five-spice.
I really wanted to order the shortribs, however went light and did the Seared Ahi Salad ($14) that was quite filling with two large servings of seared ahi, somen noodles, assorted stir fried veggies, shredded beets, carrots and daikon, sitting on locally grown lettuce and tomatoes – all nestled into a very large deep fried shell. I thought it was a tortilla, however I stand corrected: it’s a giant won ton pi chip! My beverage choice was a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir.
The Braised Short Ribs ($26) did make it to the table on a serving of Chow Mein Noodles. I didn’t get a taste, however the report is in: spoon-tender, meaty flavor with slight nuance of – cinnamon? The chow mein was stirfried with a generous portion of flavorful vegetables. My dining companions agreed it was delicioso and paired well with the Long Board Ale, which is brewed locally.
A’u (striped marlin), Opah (moonfish) and Tombo (albacore tuna) were the fresh fish choices of the day, and all three were available on “Sam’s Trio of Fish” ($28), sauteed and plated with vegetables in a very “buttery” rich sauce – and paired nicely with a glass of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc.
I sent Steve into the Kane’s room (men’s) for a shot of the decor and also to “blow his mind”. As you can see, the men received a darker theme, reminiscent of lava and volcanoes – probably to suggest a more manly, testosterone driven surrounding. There were also volcanic prints on the walls to enhance the experience.
And finally – about the only complaint that we (or Steve) had was that the lighting, although romantic and candlelit, was not sufficient for anyone over 55 to see the very small font of the bill: