People naturally think of Oahu or Maui when it comes to good restaurants, and typically recommend Kauai for it’s beautiful “undeveloped” nature and phenomenal hiking. Although it’s true that Oahu and Maui house more well-known chefs, diverse cuisines, and just sheer number of restaurants, Kauai still holds its own when it comes to places to eat. First of all, several well-known Hawaiian restaurants have opened up locations in Kauai, such as Roy’s and Merriman’s Fish House. Second, Kauai also has its own home-grown gems, like Red Salt, an elegant ocean facing restaurant inside the Koa Kea Hotel and Resort.
Red Salt spent 18 months looking for an executive chef before it found Ronnie Sanchez from New Mexico. Chef Sanchez had worked at numerous places before Red Salt, the most famous being El Bulli in Spain. The menu has hints of the artistic creativity that you would expect from an El Bulli trained chef (a foam “cloud” here or deconstructed dish there), though it’s much more toned down. The overall feel of the menu is a huge emphasis on local Hawaiian ingredients executed in a number of creative ways.
We came to Red Salt after a long and exhausting 8-mile hike along the famous Na Pali Coastline to the Hanakapi’ai Falls. Our hike ended up taking so much longer that we had expected, we had to push back our reservation at Red Salt by a couple of hours.
By the time we arrived at Red Salt, we were really, really hungry.
Red Salt is a hotel restaurant, so it’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the time we arrived closer to 8PM, the place wasn’t too crowded at all. In fact, we noticed that in general, restaurants in Poipu were never completely packed. It’s probably a combination of the fact that it was winter (off-season?) and that we were eating late. Kauai is the northernmost island and only the southern part of the island is even swimmable in the winter. Furthermore, a hiking-focused community tends to get up early, eat early, and go to bed early. I guess we were just a bit off-schedule from the other hikers!
We started with bread, butter, and (of course!) red salt from Hawaii. Next came a complimentary gazpacho made with balsamic vinegar, blueberry, and pineapple. It was surprisingly sweet, and tasted more like a fruit juice than a gazpacho. I didn’t love it, but perhaps those less-sensitive to sweet drinks would think it was fine.
Our first appetizer, Red Salt Poke ($18), is a signature dish designed by Chef Sanchez that has been on the menu since the early days of the restaurant.
A deconstructed poke of sorts, delicate cubes of ahi and ono sashimi were laid out in mosaic fashion (reminded me of a similar dish I had at Daniel in New York City). Each ahi cube was topped with wasabi tobiko and a sliver of scallion. Each ono cube was topped with red tobiko and black sesame seeds. The entire mosaic sat on top of thinly sliced wakame (seaweed) and paper thin ribbons of cucumber. The classic poke flavors of ginger and soy were present as well.
The dish was beautiful, elegant, and really exquisitely plated. The flavors were very good, all-in-all a pleasant start to the meal.
We also ordered the Beet Cured Ono ($17). Thin slices of bright red ono which had been cured in beets came topped with finely minced mango, lotus crisps, and cucumber. I loved the splash of flavors and textures from the topping. Everything – the crisp cucumbers, tangy mango, and the crunchy lotus crisps – came together into a perfect bit with the fresh, beet-cured ono. It was a lovely dish, and I wished for more.
Instead of ordering two appetizers and two entrees, we decided to order more small plates and just one main entree. The Bronzed Scallops ($16) appetizer, which came with a passion beurre blanc and wild pea shoots, was beautifully executed. The fresh scallop was incredibly tender and sweet. The bacon added a lovely crunch, and the passion beurre blanc was just a lovely way to tie the entire dish together.
We were also drawn to the Kula Sweet Onion and Saffron Soup ($12). The creamy soup was smooth, rich, and sweet. I loved how the sweetness of the onions complemented the sweetness from the corn so well. A small crispy Manchego cheese tuile floating on top of the soup added just the right amount of salty balance.
For our entree, we ordered the Red Salt 7 Spiced Seared Ahi ($39). The original dish consists of Serrano ham – wrapped ahi tuna served over an edamame-cilantro risotto with a side of baby bok choy. The entire dish was then topped with a coconut “cloud”. Unfortunately, because Bryan doesn’t eat coconut milk, we had to ask them to remove or replace the coconut cloud with something else. Sadly, this was probably our least favorite dish of the night. Perhaps it’s because we “messed with” the original dish. Although the ahi was cooked properly, the boiled bok choy on the side had very little flavor. The cilantro-edamame risotto was a bit tart, but otherwise decent. Overall the dish just sort of felt flat. It was fine, but not exciting. I’m guessing this dish would have tasted better with the coconut cloud. Perhaps the moral of the story is just to get a different dish?
We were pretty stuffed so we chose not to get dessert. However, they still sent us a fun, complimentary “cloud” as a parting gift. It was a HUGE green apple cotton candy ball with a lit candle inside!
It’s definitely an interesting and creative presentation. We picked at the cotton candy a bit, but it got too sweet pretty fast. You’re pretty much eating pure sugar, really. We sadly had to leave most of it behind.
Overall, our dinner at Red Salt was pleasant. I especially enjoyed our appetizers, and I’m really glad that we ordered four (!) of them. I regret trying to change one of their menu items to suit our taste preferences, and perhaps next time I would just order something else. I wish we had been able to arrive at the restaurant before sunset, because we would have been able to enjoy some really nice ocean views out the window. Alas, that’s one downside of traveling in the winter when the sun sets a lot earlier (though I’m not complaining – it was still very nice to be in Hawaii when it was so cold in Boston!).
This meal was a little bit bittersweet too, because it was our last dinner of our entire Hawaii trip.
The next morning we decided to take it easy. Even though we could have driven out to Waimea Canyon and squeezed in one last hike before our afternoon flight, we didn’t want to deal with the stress. After our previous longer-than-anticipated hike, Bryan didn’t want to risk similar uncertainties coupled with a flight back to the mainland in the afternoon. Up until this point, we felt like we had been packing so much into our whirlwind two-week-four-island itinerary.
So we slowed down.
All we did that last morning was visit the beach, enjoy our own poke take-out “picnic” on our ocean facing balcony, and relax.
It was glorious.
I made sand Domos. We soaked in the sun. And we tried to absorb as much of the warm Hawaiian islands as we could. We knew we only had a few hours left in this paradise before it would be back to reality.
Good-by Kauai. We will surely, surely miss you.
This is the LAST post about Hawaii. It is also part of a larger series on our two week trip to Hawaii. Other posts in this series!
Merriman’s Fish House
Kauai Shore Diving at Koloa Beach
Kauai Shore Diving at Koloa Beach
Private Helicopter Ride with Mauna Loa Helicopters
Hiking the Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Kalalua Trail