Hoku’s Chef Is Making Waves With New MenuCover Story
September 10, 2017
Story By: Ali Resich | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO
Eric Oto grew up fishing with his stepfather in the turquoise waters of Oahu. As he caught halalu in Waimea Bay and speared reef fish in Hauula, he developed a deep love and respect for the ocean — so much so that he initially wanted to pursue a career in marine biology.
All the while, Oto enjoyed frying up his freshly caught fish for family and friends in his spare time. When his uncle was tragically diagnosed with stage-four cancer, however, he began to see his passion for cooking in a new light. Not able to eat, the only thing Oto’s uncle could stomach at the time was the crispy fish that he prepared at his aunty’s request. When reflecting on that formative experience from his past, Oto realized the meaningful impact his food could have on those around him — and that a career in the restaurant industry was the best way to bring together his loves for the ocean and cooking.
Now an experienced chef and the new chef de cuisine at Hoku’s in The Kahala Hotel & Resort, Oto is sharing his bond with the sea — and the tasty treasures it has to offer — on the signature restaurant’s new menu. Under the direction of longtime executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi, the local boy aims to give patrons a richer understanding of local ingredients, not only through the flavors he puts on the plate, but also through the origins and inspirations of the dish that he shares with diners.
“When guests love the dish and they hear the story behind it, they make a deeper connection — not just to the food, but to the chef and what our team at Hoku’s is trying to do,” says Oto.
Hoku’s has always blended upscale island cuisine with international influences, and the new menu items dreamt up by Oto only serve as wonderful complements to Hoku’s classics. Taking guests on a magnificent journey under the sea, dishes like Nori & Mushroom Crusted Day Boat Scallop ($14) offer an intricate layering of local flavors and contrasting textures. In this pupu, the plump scallop is a playground for the natural-umami bliss of its nori-and-mushroom crust. The scallop is accented with a foamy dashi cauliflower espuma that is light and fluffy in texture yet luxurious and smoky in flavor.
Oto’s love for the ocean also is evident in Ahi Crudo ($16), which brings out the full culinary potential of thinly sliced, fresh ahi with crispy bits of buckwheat kernels and complementing flavors of ponzu, a bright, green onion-infused oil and more. As for the main courses, Shellfish Ravioli ($37) is Asian fusion at its best, shining with a soy reduction and sake butter, as well as spinach, shiso and mushroom adornments. When possible, Oto uses prawns from an exclusive harvest of Makapuu prawns — a limited-availability ingredient — in the dish.
Across the board, the chef loves to highlight Hawaii’s best bites, including the Big Island abalone that tops his creamy Corn Bisque ($14), which is often prepared with local sweet corn.
“The products are very important, and we want guests to understand where the vegetables came from, and to know a little bit about the Big Island abalone, local lobster or local fish,” says Oto. “I think (patrons) want to be excited and know a product is local so, as much as possible, we try to support that.”
With years of experience in the industry, having previously worked at Orchids at Halekulani and Fish House at Four Seasons Resort Oahu, Oto’s talents extend beyond the realm of seafood. His spontaneity with the cooking process is showcased in starters like Beef & Sprout Salad ($16) plated with refreshing notes of mung bean sprouts, cucumber, mint and Tiparos Lime Dressing. In Pan Seared Foie Gras ($22), his aptitude for flavor pairings is offered through sprinkles of bitter cocoa nibs that perfectly cut through the fatty richness of foie gras, which is sweetened with toasted Hawaiian sweetbread, mac-nut crumble and seasonal fruit compote.
Though one can’t go wrong with any dish on Hoku’s new menu, a spectacular centerpiece for the meal is Charbroiled Kurobuta Pork Chop ($38). Oto was inspired by the night sky that Hoku’s name brings to mind (as hoku means star in Hawaiian), so he opted to go with a theme of black ingredients for the dish, from the dark char of the high-end Kurobuta Black Pork to the black bean puree, black vinegar pickled veggies and a noir garlic sauce. Through imaginative concepts like this one — emblematic of the chef’s thoughtful and purposeful approach to cooking — it’s easy to see that Oto is filling Hoku’s menu with an ocean’s worth of flavor and significance.
SIZZLING STREET FARE COMES TO THE KAHALA
Mark your calendar for Thursday, Sept. 28, when The Kahala Hotel & Resort will once again host a fanciful evening of Asian Street Food.
Taking place at the breezy Plumeria Beach House restaurant, the event will feature an array of “street food stations” that will bring to life the sizzling sounds, aromas and flavors of the markets of Asia. As a special treat, guest chef Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang from Michelin-recognized Farmhouse Kitchen in San Francisco and Portland will offer up his distinct and upscale approach to Thai cuisine.
Asian Street Food will be hosted from 6 to 9 p.m. and is priced at $65 per person (food only) and $35 per child (6-12 years old).
As part of The Kahala’s collaboration with Chef Kasem, hungry foodies can also look forward to a special Farmhouse Kitchen Sampler Platter ($25; available lunch and dinner) featured only at Plumeria Beach House Sept. 29-Oct.14.
Stop by Plumeria Beach House for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily (6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.).