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A Well-Earned Escape

BY Mari Taketa | November 2, 2016 | Feature Features

The Pacific meets the Mediterranean at the dazzling Noe, on O‘ahu's West side.
Handmade pastas, such as the maccheroni with crab, feature the flavors of the Amalfi Coast.

The evening we set out for our first visit to Noe, the upscale Southern Italian restaurant at the recently opened Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina, we had no inkling there had been an unusual incident on the freeway from Honolulu, or that said incident would turn the normally pleasant 30-minute drive into a 2 ½-hour odyssey. For that matter, we didn’t know it was possible to drive to Ko Olina at 9.6 miles per hour. So you can imagine our state of mind when, sprung from our transport in the airy porte-cochere, we practically threw the keys at a smiling valet and bounded through the open-air lobby and down the stairs to Noe.

The colors of the interior spaces—designed by Marion Philpotts—offer a clean, contemporary vision of the Mediterranean, which is the restaurant’s theme. But my favorite area is the hau tree-studded patio overlooking the fishponds. There, one can exhale and remember that the best things in life are the simplest. Lanterns hang from branches; birdsong is everywhere; the last pink-orange glow of sunset lingers on the horizon; and, through it all, an undercurrent so subliminal it goes almost unnoticed, is the gentle sound of water flowing into the ponds.

Here’s the point where you order a cocktail. Alcoholic or not—and Noe has excellent versions of both, particularly the Hawaiian honey-and-sea salt accented Della Casa vodka martini—this is how you do the setting justice, by pausing a long moment. Serenity restored, you’ll notice that the dinner menu offers impressive variety on a single page. Half the page is snacks, appetizers and sides, including a whole section of carpaccio and tartare dishes. On my visit, the handmade pastas, some sporting esoteric shapes and names like paccheri, cavatelli, strozzapreti, seem especially fun. “We want to use local, high-quality products and deliver an authentic Southern Italian experience,” Executive Chef Martin Knaubert says. “We want our guests to feel they are traveling on the Amalfi Coast when experiencing the flavors.”

Southern Italy evokes the rustic, fresh and pleasurable—a tantalizing vision for our escape from the city. We opt for a parade of small plates and hone in immediately on the carpaccio of Big Island beef, sweet and yielding under tart caperberries. Medallions of octopus, another appetizer, are tender and dressed simply with celery shavings and lemon. But it’s the vegetable dishes, especially the succulent, caramelized endives studded with crispy guanciale bits, that drive home the pleasant discovery that, for all its luxe appeal, Noe’s deceptively simple preparations let well-chosen ingredients shine.
The next night, after a painless half-hour drive, we’re back to explore the other half of the menu, partly because we can’t resist another Della Casa martini. This visit is all about honey, cream and the bounties of the sea. A whipped ricotta snack is indulgent in all kinds of ways: an accompaniment of pale gold Wai‘anae honeycomb, spicy almond brittle crisps, a light touch of truffle oil. Ricotta appears again, mousse-like on our paccheri, an artful composition of bite-size pasta tubes topped with briny-sweet sea urchin.

For this uni, we sacrifice the cavatelli with lamb ragu, which we hear brings meat lovers to their knees. It’s not an easy choice, since the pasta section today also lists macaroni (or maccheroni, as it’s spelled here) with crab and Kona lobster spaghetti. Among the entrees we forgo the branzino with olives and celery dressing; chicken paillard with walnut pesto; and a 25-day dry-aged rib-eye because in the 24 hours since our last visit, we have been fixating on the onaga (snapper). You would too. It’s prepared sous vide, sealed against a gentle poaching that yields maximum juiciness and flavor, tinged with a drizzle of bottarga and surrounded by melting rounds of grilled eggplant and zucchini.

If at this point you’re tempted to skip dessert, don’t. On my visit, Executive Pastry Chef Helen Hong’s creations included an unlikely tiramisu hidden under a globular chocolate shell, and a vanilla bean panna cotta with cherry pearls and buttermilk ice cream in a salted caramel consommé poured tableside. What tops even these is that evening’s special: a tres leches sponge cake, soaked in sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk and regular milk. Garnished with a corresponding trio of strawberry preparations, the cake’s moist, light milkiness tastes like sweet innocence.

When we retrieve our car, the friendly valet asks if we’ll be back for a third night in a row. If we could, we would. Noe is a definite recommendation. And the truth is, with an unexpectedly restorative dinner like this at the end of the road, we didn’t mind the journey at all.

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