Hawaiian Fish Tasting Showcases Island Gems

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Chef Hawaii

Honolulu-based chef Jon Matsubara prepared three varieties of Hawaiian fish in Beverly Hills.

The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is making a big push to showcase their culture and emerging culinary scene. They’ve been in L.A. all week, including a lunch at the W on Wednesday. Last night, fast-rising Honolulu chef Jon Matsubara continued his mastery of island ingredients, preparing three varieties of Hawaiian fish at DOM, Reba Sams’ kitchen showroom in Beverly Hills. The two events left me with a sense that it’s finally worth visiting Hawaii very soon, and not just for the beaches and the oversized rum drinks…for the food.

Matsubara is the chef at Azure, the seven-month-old signature restaurant in The Royal Hawaiian, a landmark Waikiki Beach hotel that opened in 1918 and reopened earlier this year after a $110 million remodel. Matsubara grew up in Honolulu and earned degrees in Native American History and law before immersing himself in the kitchens of island giants Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi. He graduated from the French Culinary Institute and worked for Manhattan heavy-hitters like David Bouley and Jean Georges Vongerichten before returning home. At Azure, he makes sure to “implement modern techniques to local ingredients.”

At DOM, Matsubara featured three sustainable Hawaiian fish that aren’t regularly available on the mainland. He stressed that the fish in Hawaii are “very different than you’ll see on the mainland…different grades don’t always equate to Hawaiian standards.” Meaning mainland fish don’t always pass muster. Event coordinator Melanie Kosaka (Share Your Table) said that Hawaiians focus on what happens “from hook to plate,” making sure the fish is managed well from the time it’s caught.

Fish Hawaii

Matsubara featured Opah (aka moonfish) in ruby-hued poke tossed with red seaweed (limu) strands, candlenut (kukui) bits, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, scallions and crunchy onion.

The candlenut is packed in salt and adds fat to lean Hawaiian fish. Opah poke appears on the bar menu at Azure’s mai tai bar.

Fish Hawaii

Monchong, a type of pomfret, steamed with minced island nuts and ginger in a fragrant chile-tea broth.

Matsubara used pink monchong loin, but he also appreciates the fish’s belly. At Azure, the same preparation graces a different fish.

Fish Hawaii

Finally, Matsubara smoked Aku (aka skipjack tuna, aka bonito, aka dashi’s base), serving it with sweet pineapple carpaccio, baby fennel, vanilla bean and fibrous palm hearts.

He brined aku and smoked it with kiawe [kay-ah-vay], an aromatic hardwood similar to mesquite. He even piped the swirling smoke under a clear cup and we lifted it to release the aroma, adding to the sensory experience.

After the tasting, Jimmy Chan was making Kalua pork sliders on King’s Hawaiian rolls, using diced pineapple and his Kilauea Fire sauce, a spicy BBQ sauce named for an active Hawaiian volcano. He served the slider with his colorful taro and purple sweet potato chips, the former topped with Hawaiian tuna poke.

Just like at the W, we were treated to the musical stylings of Daniel Ho (no relation to Don), a guitarist and ukelele player who’s won a Grammy Award the past four years in the Best Hawaiian Music category, most recently accompanying Tia Carrere [“Schwing!”]. At the W on Wednesday, he performed with Grammy winning guitarist George Kahumoku, Jr.

Vodka Hawaii

The event also spotlighted other island products, including Ocean Vodka.

The USDA Organic vodka made on Maui uses organic sugar instead of grain and distills with desalinated seawater harvested from 3000 feet below the surface, from a current that originates at Greenland’s glaciers. The vodka had a rubbing alcohol bite to it, but tasted sweeter than normal at the finish due to the sugar. Ocean Vodka is family-run by Shay Smith.

Beer Hawaii

Ben Iaderosa and Philip Marte were also on hand to pour Primo, a golden lager from Hawaii’s first brewery.

Primo started in 1897 and was forced to shut down a century later, but Illinois-based Pabst revitalized the brand in 2007, featuring a similarly malty recipe and Hawaii sugar cane, which leads to a sweet finish.

At the W on Wednesday, Hawaiian culinary experts told tales of a booming farm-to-table restaurant scene over plates of Kona cold lobster, coconut-macadamia tarts and Kona coffee panna cottas. Considering Chef Matsubara’s food that day, and the fish he showcased at DOM, Hawaii just vaulted to the top of my travel wish list.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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