Thursday, February 14, 2008

Wining and Dining in Kauai

In the past, restaurants offering fine wines in Hawaii were few and far between, not to mention expensive. Overly warm red wines of dubious lineage were the norm at many mid-range eateries. That has changed. The choices of both red and white wines are more plentiful, and the prices are close to what we would expect on the mainland.

Many of the supermarkets now carry a good representation of California wines at near-California prices. California being the nearest cousin in temperament and culture has provided the islands with a rich harvest of fine wines to choose from. Australian wines are also plentiful and at good prices. French and Italian wines also make their appearance, but due to higher transportation fees are more costly.

High-end restaurants do make the biggest splash in terms of cuisine and wine cellar-listings, but many mid-list restaurants are now following suit. It is also possible to enjoy excellent food at even the most pre-possessing cafes. At the Hanapepe Café in the artistic village of Hanapepe, an outstanding vegetarian meal can be had for only a few dollars. Since they allow you to bring your own wine, nay – encourage it, an exquisite lunch of curried cauliflower soup and some of the best fish sandwiches on the island can be had to complement a tart, acidic Sauvignon Blanc for a fraction of the price almost anywhere else. That can be followed by a tour of the many art galleries along the main road for a mini-Canyon road experience, and you’re on the Garden Isle of Kauai!

In short, paradise has gotten more toney without getting too pricey. Even when price is no object, it is hard to beat Roy’s restaurant – renowned throughout the Hawaii islands – for that special occasion. We recently celebrated our 25th anniversary there by sitting at a table festooned with streamers of ribbon to document the event, and gobs of personal attention. The islands it should be mentioned take honeymoons, anniversaries, and birthdays as the main events they should be in our lives.

Kauai’s North shore is dotted with fine eateries that range from casual island cuisine to elaborate restaurants offering heart-stopping views and alas, sometimes heart-stopping prices. On a budget your best bet would be looking for restaurants that allow you to bring your own wine, of which there are several, or cooking your own in room meals.

Look for accommodations that provide a kitchen, but ask about how well appointed they are if you love to cook. Since many visitors to the islands hate to cook on vacation, some of the kitchens offer little more than a place to mix your rum and fruit drinks and store your wine and liquor.

Both North and South shore have excellent fish markets where Ahi, Ono, and other island delicacies can be had for a fraction of restaurant prices. And now that a wide range of fine wines are available virtually everywhere on the island, the perfect accompaniment to island fare can be had at a reasonable price.

Sauvignon Blancs from California and Australia are readily available and better compliment the island fare, although Chardonnays are plentiful. I have not seen an infusion of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs as yet, but they should soon make their appearance. Pinot Grigio is another good choice for many of the delicately flavored fishes including Wamoo, a buttery fish that, grill-cooked, will have you scrambling for more.

Red wines require a bit more caution. Many red meats are available at a modest premium, and most resorts offer barbeque grills. However, due to the constant high temperatures and humidity – you remember humidity, that’s the thing most locations outside New Mexico offer – it does not take much exposure to ruin a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. In other words, chose your wine store carefully, and if in doubt use one of the major supermarkets. Most have a good selection, good prices, and are air-conditioned.

That caution also applies to restaurants. We went to one Koloa café on the South Shore that provides good island fare and an extensive wine list, but the first red I selected had gone bad from the high heat of its naturally-cooled interior. All the reds they served were at least 10 degrees too warm. Nothing blunts the flavor a red wine like serving it much above 65 degrees, like the ones we sent back.

That being said, most experiences on Kauai and the other islands of the Hawaiian chain are greatly enhanced by the inclusion of wine with your meal, and often at reasonable prices. Of course the best deals are those rum-inspired concoctions with the umbrellas and pineapple slices sticking out the top of every imaginably-shaped glass. Just remember they sneak up on you a lot quicker than a glass of vino. Salut!

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