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The roasted Kekela beet salad

Land of Plenty

by Margaret Kearns | Photo: Joshua Fletcher | Hawai'i magazine | March 5, 2013

When Four Seasons Resort Hualālai opened back in 1996, it not only redefined luxury on Hawai‘i Island forever, it also took the epicurean experience to dizzying new heights with its oceanfront eatery, Pahu‘i‘a. But after a series of menu makeovers, conceptual tweaks and an impressive trail of toques entering (and exiting) its kitchen, Pahu‘i‘a began to fade, closing its doors quietly in the summer of 2012.

Luckily for diners, in just two months—and $2 million later—an entirely reinvented restaurant, ‘ULU Ocean Grille + Sushi Lounge, emerged in Pahu‘i‘a’s space. Here, fresh and local takes center stage, thanks to Executive Chef James Babian. Locavores can delight in knowing that 75 percent of ingredients are Hawai‘i Island-grown, with almost 20 percent of the fish and produce coming from the property’s gardens and ponds. Even the name ‘ULU harmonizes with the grown-here concept: ‘Ulu is the Hawaiian name for the breadfruit, which flourished on this property centuries ago.

In keeping with the back-to-the-earth philosophy, the vibe is decidedly relaxed and welcoming—a clear departure from Pahu‘i‘a’s formality. Though the natural woods and neutral colors remain, the room dividers are now open and strung with playful Japanese-style fishnet floats. The flowing space capitalizes on the dreamy tropical views, and visually stunning contemporary furnishings also score high fives for comfort.

Then come two welcomed additions. First, there’s the complimentary Wine Table, which offers 32 wines by the glass. The host, Assistant Manager Holly Jones—an enthusiastic certified sommelier—is quick to pour a varietal you’re eager to try. Then there’s the new cozy 10-seat bar. Thanks to mixologists Doug Schulman and Tom Yessis, there’s a whole lot of shaking, stirring and muddling going on here. Notably, Hawai‘i-made vodkas and rums jazz up many of the libations. Do try the Lavender Cubano, a piquant mix of 10 Cane rum, housemade lavender syrup, lime and mint—delivered in a retro Champagne coupe. The adjacent lounge provides additional über-comfortable seating that encourages lingering and noshing.

While it was tempting to surrender to the lounge, my guest and I sat for dinner on the Makai Lanai—the most intimate of three distinct dining areas. (It also offers the most expansive views.) Here, our wine journey continued, as Jones guided us through the well-conceived list presented on an iPad, which provides all the scoop about every wine you could desire.

But for all the visual allure and nifty gadgets, it’s Babian’s sustainable, artisanal cuisine—deftly prepared by teammate Nick Mastrascusa, ‘ULU’s chef de cuisine—that takes the show. The straightforward menu offerings are presented concisely. Starters fall under makai (ocean), mauka (mountains) and sushi monikers, while entrées are grouped by preparation (wood-oven roasted, wok-fired and flame-grilled). Start with the Kona white abalone, bathed in a sublime kaffir lime and coconut emulsion. Also indulge in the lobster wonton soup, each dumpling bursting with Hāmākua mushrooms and Keāhole lobster. From the uplands comes the roasted Kekela beet salad. Dressed with smoked Puna goat cheese in a poha berry vinaigrette, it’s as tantalizing on the palate as it is on the plate.

Taking inspiration from land and sea, entrees impress and satisfy, too. During my visit, the tai snapper arrived whole, wafting light smoke and herbal aromas, only to be expertly filleted by our server. Its silky flesh and subtle flavors were enhanced by a bold tomato and ginger relish. (I’ll come back to savor it again!) Of course, while there are more than seven local fish selections on the menu, only a steak will satisfy sometimes. The Kulana grass-fed tenderloin did not disappoint. It was tender and juicy, topped with a shiso chimichurri, a true Japanese and Argentinian fusion.

In keeping with ‘ULU’s more relaxed vibe, desserts are both approachable and delicious. Two of the decadent treats are standouts: the Paniolo Shake, made with Waialua chocolate and served with liliko‘i-stuffed malasadas, and Nuts for Bananas, a fun take on bananas foster. Curiosity and cravings satisfied, I couldn’t help but think that ‘ULU’s kitchen knows no limits. And if my meal was a sign of things to come, this culinary destination is sure to flourish.

‘ULU Ocean Grill + Sushi Lounge
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai 72-100 Ka‘upulehu Drive Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i Island, 325.8000
fourseasons.com/hualalai

Hours
Breakfast, 6:30-11am daily; buffet breakfast, 6:30-10:30am daily; dinner, 5:30-9pm daily

Cost
Starters, $12-$19; sushi, $14-$24; entrées, $21-$59; desserts, $11-$14

Reservations
Recommended

Who’s There
40-something sophisticates, polished professionals celebrating another successful deal,
couples digging the romantic, beachy vibe

Sip Away
Definitely taste the complimentary offering at the welcoming Wine Table

Must-Tries
Chartreuse Sizzle cocktail, Kona white abalone, wood-oven roasted tai snapper

Sight to Be Seen
Enjoy dreamy sunsets, waves breaking on the white-sand beach and sparkling starry skies.

Techie Treat
Peruse the extensive cocktail and wine offerings, and read critics’ ratings and tasting notes on the house-provided iPad.