For today’s conscious consumers, there’s more to enjoying good food than simply reveling in delicious flavors. There’s also the added satisfaction that comes from eating high-quality meat, seafood and produce sourced responsibly from sustainable and ethical operations. And if those products happen to come from a local vendor — you’ve really hit the jackpot!
Kona Abalone falls into the category of all of the above, hailing from Big Island Abalone Corp. (BIAC), one of the largest abalone aquafarms in the world. The Kona Abalone brand of the Japanese Ezo variety of abalone raised at BIAC tastes like seafood heaven because the aquafarm pumps nutrient-rich Pacific seawater from a depth of 3,000 feet to simulate the mollusk’s ideal natural growing environment. BIAC also produces its own red-seaweed feed for the abalone, which brings out the right taste, texture, color, nutrition and characteristics of those gorgeous iridescent shells.
Even better, BIAC’s consistent source of abalone — they produce more than 70 metric tons of it annually — does its part to provide a much-need reprieve for endangered and over-fished wild abalone populations around the world.
Since chefs in Japan, the West Coast and Hawaii love to cook with Kona Abalone, Ono, You Know decided to pick out some excellent places to try it right here at home.
Most of us are used to munching on crunchy pieces of shrimp and vegetable tempura, but I recently discovered that crispy yet fluffy tempura batter is a match made in heaven for abalone as well. The flaky coating contrasts perfectly with the seafood’s smooth, chewy, squid-like texture.
You can be cast under the palate-mesmerizing spell of Kona Abalone Tempura ($23) at Tempura Ichidai, where tempura experts can tell the exact moment in which each batch is fried to perfection just by the sight and aroma of the frying oil. It takes keen practice to master this culinary art form, and at the trendy Ala Moana Center eatery, customers can witness it first hand — then taste the made-to-order tempura just seconds after it leaves the fryer.
Prices are reasonable at the eight-month-old tempura bar, which is part of Japan-based Pier Thirty restaurant group (along with Café Lani and Gokoku Sushi, the latter of which is temporarily closed for renovations). Pier Thirty USA corporate chef Katsuhisa Inoue, who oversees the menu at Tempura Ichidai, says that customers also can taste the restaurant’s dedication to quality in the meaty, generous chunks of Kona Abalone served in Special Assorted Tempura ($28). The platter offers the abalone alongside tender king crab, anago (sea eel) and a big, juicy oyster.
In addition to dipping your tempura into its classic, light sauce, Inoue encourages patrons to try each fried morsel with the eatery’s wasabi and Hawaiian sea salts — seeing as salt is a traditional garnish in high-end tempura restaurants in Japan.
Tempura Ichidai is known for its tempura teishoku (set meals) and donburi, but it also offers a full menu of Japanese cuisine. The dining spot is gearing up to offer a fall menu with seasonal ingredients from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30. The special menu will feature Fall Udon ($22) with seasonal mushrooms (enoki, shiitake, shimeji and oyster), king crab and momiji kabocha; an Ichidai Gozen ($25) set menu with a range of small courses, including sashimi, miso dengaku vegetables and more; and a Kabocha Coconut Zenzai ($7) dessert featuring vanilla gelato with azuki beans, chestnut, pumpkin and other toppings.
Ala Moana Center
Ewa Wing, Level 3 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu
CATCH THIS WAVE
Whether accentuating the freshness of local seafood or bringing out the best in island-sourced meat, Japengo’s chef de cuisine Joseph Rose always presents his own sophisticated interpretation of Hawaii Regional Cuisine to his guests at the Waikiki restaurant.
When it comes to fresh seafood, Japengo’s Makai Tasting Menu ($95 per person) offers the chance to explore a whole range of sea-buried treasures swimming with intricate flavors in a multi-course dining experience. Amid the oyster shooter, sashimi-style hamachi, scallop truffleyaki, Singaporean chili lobster and Japengo bouillabaisse, Sake Steamed Kona Abalone accented with Manila clams stands out.
Rose says the less time it takes an ingredient to travel to your plate, the more fresh and flavorful it’s going to be. That certainly is the case with the abalone in his dish, which comes in live from the Big Island.
After the abalone and clams are steamed, they’re given a luxurious dousing of sake and house-made bacon-dashi broth, which lends smokiness and depth of flavor to the dish. A refreshing burst of green garlic butter — made with subtle young garlic and fresh herbs — brightens things up, while enoki mushrooms and scallions are the crowning jewels.
“The abalone are really nice. We slice them nice and thin so they’re a little bit more tender, and we cook them really slowly so they’re softer. The abalone still has that nice, clean oceany flavor; it’s a little milder than clams but not as briny as oysters — kind of that nice in between that works really well with the bacon-dashi, garlic and the sake that we put into it,” says Rose.
Once these flavors of the sea have washed over you, you can look forward to some menu changes that are soon to debut at Japengo. Rose also is excited to reveal that the restaurant is in the process of building a new bar area, which will perfectly supplement the eatery’s already fine-as-can-be dining experience.
Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa
Ewa Tower, third floor 2424 Kalakaua Ave., Waikiki