Kona's operative word: fresh
Eateries in Kona on the Big Island sure know how to take full advantage of the bounty that fills their land and waters. On a short visit last week to the island, I ate at several restaurants both humble and fancy, and was duly impressed by the absolute freshness of the food served on the plate.
Now, I must admit I don't necessarily gravitate toward fish as my first choice in a meal, but if I had been familiar with fish this fresh, I'd be eating it all the time. Besides breakfast, it was pretty much part of every meal I had in Kona during my stay.
My newfound appreciation began at Akule Supply Co., a casual outdoor eatery at Keauhou Bay run by the Sheraton Kona. Servers told me fishermen come right up from the bay to bring fresh fish to the restaurant. It sure tasted like they do. My 10-year-old niece had a fish and chips plate filled with battered fish and fries that she said she'd share with her mom, who was in the hotel. But instead she gobbled up the whole thing, and I understood why: Not only was the tender, white-fleshed fish so fresh, it was perfectly cooked, moist without a trace of mushiness.
My daughter order a poke bowl, which based on the ingredients didn't seem like anything particularly distinctive. Sea salt, shoyu, sesame oil, lime, green and round onions and chilies, all standard fare for a poke mix, seasoned her dish. But the fish itself took the dish to another level, and served with perfectly cooked rice, it moved my daughter to clean her plate the same way the fish and chips had my niece.
Since there were no more fish and chips, I ordered my sister a Crispy Nori Roll, a sushi of sorts (sans rice) filled with fresh ahi, avocado and lump crab, then wrapped in nori, doused in panko and fried. Chipotle ginger aioli lent a lively touch, and servings of furikake rice and sweet, vinegary namasu balanced out the meal. She devoured the plate before I got to have a taste.
As for myself, I selected the only nonfish dish, Avocado Fries, which the waitress said was the most popular appetizer on the menu. It entailed a perfectly ripened avocado coated in panko and fried golden. While that may seem like a ruinous way to treat a perfectly ripened avocado, the cook executed magic — the morsels of avo were delightfully crisp on the outside while somehow remaining fresh and cool inside. Generous drizzlings of teriyaki and spicy aioli sauces covered the fries, and I feared they would dominate the delicate rich flavor of the fruit. But their tempered flavors were complementary rather than overpowering.
A couple nights later, upon recommendations from family friends, I dined at Umeke's Fishmarket Bar and Grill, where fresh fish was centric to the menu. My friend ordered a pupu item, Umeke's Poke Balls, deep fried and finished with a spicy garlic aioli. The fish, fully cooked and fully flavored, was delicious.
I made a meal of another pupu item, Pulehu Ahi Belly, which I ordered with a couple scoops rice. It's served with garlic, furikake or spicy aioli. I chose spicy, which wasn't at all overbearing, and its creaminess added a nice contrast to the smoky fish.
By the time we left, our opus were thoroughly satisfied.