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Ono, You Know

The Chase is On for Seafood Chowder

By Ali Resich Photos By Nathalie Walker
November 17, 2013

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It’s true that fall in Hawaii isn’t as chilly as it is on the Mainland, but I know we all woke up to a distinct nip in the air this past week. In lieu of leaves to rake and snow to shovel, there’s really only one thing for kamaaina to do when a cool breeze begins to swirl: Cozy up to an inviting bowl of creamy soup!

One comfort food that perfectly fits this description is seafood chowder. I got to know the American classic well while going to college in Boston, a city in which steaming hot meals are essential for anyone trying to thaw out on an icy winter day.

This soup is just the trick, and patrons across the country have enjoyed an endless variety of chowders since they first developed on the East Coast more than 200 years ago. Every region has its own version of the dish, so I fell under the seduction of New England-style chowder while living in Massachusetts. As opposed to its tomato-based rival, this chowder is irresistibly creamy and packed with clam or other seafood as well as hearty potatoes.

Here at home, my unfaltering dedication to these creamy bowls of comfort has lead me to find a number of scrumptious local takes on seafood chowder, complete with fresh Island ingredients that take it to a new level of amazingness.

Pagoda Floating Restaurant

Surrounded by green gardens and flowing fish ponds, Pagoda Floating Restaurant has shined as an oasis of Hawaiian, Asian and American fare since the 1960s. Executive chef Jason Takemura knows how to put an enticing local twist on classic recipes, and his Clam and Taro Chowder ($6) is no exception.

Presented as a creamy mix of clams, bacon, onion, carrot and celery, this bowl of comfort warms me up just as much as the eatery’s calm setting, complete with tranquil waterfalls to gaze at.

Unlike most clam chowders, which tend to feature potatoes, Takemura’s stands out with taro as his signature touch. “It’s got that clam chowder flavor, but when you bite into the taro especially, it’s something a little bit different,” says the chef. “Potato’s kind of neutral in flavor, but taro has its own distinct flavor.”

Takemura adds that the starchiness of the taro helps to thicken the soup’s creamy consistency, while a house-made fish stock enhances its savoriness. And in an effort to avoid waste, the chef uses Kampachi bones stripped from filets used in one of his dinner entrees to make the stock from scratch, giving this chowder a homemade quality that’s evident from the moment you try it.

Pagoda Floating Restaurant
1525 Rycroft St.
948-8356

Plumeria Beach House

What better way to enjoy seafood chowder than perched at The Kahala Hotel & Resort’s picturesque seaside escape, also known as Plumeria Beach House. There, a group of culinary masters, namely executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi, executive sous chef Daniel Uejo and chef Jason Watanabe collaborate to bring locals and tourists alike a taste of Pacific Rim dining with international spunk.

Corn chowder meets seafood bliss in Plumeria’s Fresh Island Catch Chowder ($12), which presents braised Chinese taro and roasted Ewa Plains sweet corn in a creamy onaga-based broth.

“This is a recipe (created) between chef Wayne and Daniel and I,” explains Watanabe. “We try to get everybody’s input and come out with the best product we can.”

Fresh Island Catch Chowder ($12) Lawrence Tabudlo photo

Fresh Island Catch Chowder ($12) Lawrence Tabudlo photo

The chefs have succeeded with this rendition, which features heavy cream and hickory smoked bacon to add heartiness to the dish, as well as fresh ogo seaweed and house-made basil oil for savory touches.

Last but not least, the star of Fresh Island Catch Chowder is divine fish itself, which varies in the dish depending on what’s fresh at the restaurant. When I stopped by, wonderfully large chunks of mahi mahi melted in my mouth with each bite.

When it comes down to it, “It’s just a fresh fish flavor — very clean,” describes Watanabe. It’s definitely a chowder worth diving into.

Plumeria Beach House
The Kahala Hotel & Resort
5000 Kahala Ave.
739-8760

Kai Market

The last soup I explored came highly recommended to me by a staff member at my dentist’s office, who shared that her family returns to Kai Market time and time again for another taste of Niihau Seafood Chowder (part of the dinner buffet: $55 adults, $58 Friday and Saturday; $25 for children ages 6-12, free for children age 5 and under with a paying adult). A craving instantly hit and I had to check it out for myself!

It’s always a treat to visit Sheraton Waikiki’s dreamy beachfront eatery, where executive chef Darren Demaya enlivens local ingredients and ethnic fare that reflects Hawaii’s plantation era history.

As for the seafood chowder, Demaya incorporates local catches into his fish fumet stock, which serves as the heart of the soup. “We just start off with a good stock and a good stock makes a good soup,” he says. “Then we just add the seafood and fresh herbs.”

Ni'ihau Seafood Chowder from Kai Market at Sheraton Waikiki. Anthony Consillio photo

Ni’ihau Seafood Chowder from Kai Market at Sheraton Waikiki. Anthony Consillio photo

Fantastic chunks of clam and scallop embellish the thick soup and round out a seafood-filled chowder that’s unique to the Islands.

“It has a nice richness … but still has the taste of the seafood and herbs that we add to the soup,” says Demaya. “I would say it’s rich and earthy.”

After one spoonful of this ever-satisfying selection, I understood why it keeps patrons coming back for more.

So the next time you feel that chill, coat your tummy with these cozy chowders.

Kai Market
Sheraton Waikiki
2255 Kalakaua Ave.
921-4600 for reservations