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Wish You Were Here

BY Mari Taketa | August 25, 2016 | Feature Features

In a swinging 1960s setting, Ed Kenney once again raises the bar for Hawai‘i cuisine.
SURF'S UP The monchong dish ($28) features ‘ulu (breadfruit), green beans, chervil and cherry tomatoes.

The swath of Waikīkī that houses Ed Kenney’s newest restaurant is a jumble of rental condos, cinderblock walk-ups and other modesties of postwar architecture. So the view that greets you on your way to Mahina & Sun’s in the newly reimagined Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club is a complete surprise: an electrifying courtyard of visual feasts. “Wish you were here!” screams the pattern formed across the bottom of the swimming pool in tiles, creating a sassy, made-for-Instagram postcard. The wallpaper undulates in geometric patterns; sofas and lounge chairs mix vintage with midcentury modern; and wall art is supplied by the street artists of art collective POW! WOW! Hawaii. Even the ottomans and the rug underfoot arrest your eyes with color and pattern.

It’s all so heady, we nearly miss Mahina & Sun’s. Tucked in an open-air space to one side, Mahina is not only Kenney’s first restaurant outside Kaimukī after his long-shuttered Downtown, but also a homecoming of sorts. His parents, singer Ed Kenney Jr. and hula performer Beverly Noa, were headliners in the heyday of Waikīkī stage shows. It was partly Surfjack’s ’60s vibe—complete with its elegance and more neighborhood feel—that drew him into Waikīkī. So Mahina’s design aesthetic blends seamlessly with the lobby and hints at the food within: An orange picnic table promises rustic; the shaka pattern on the wallpaper signals local; and the turquoise-and-orange color scheme—which makes the space look like an edgy HoJo’s for the design aficionado—promises excitement.

But there are big questions: After the eye-popping stroll through Surfjack’s courtyard, is Mahina’s menu as exciting as its decor? And how does the food compare with Kenney’s attention-grabbing trifecta of restos—Town, Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water?

The answer to the first comes to the table on a dish of monchong. The fish is locally sourced, of course. (After all, Kenney is a leading sustainable food activist in the islands, and Mahina is going through the process to be certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.) But the dish isn’t just virtuous, it also provides a fun time for the palate. Think a riot of fresh flavors and textures: the monchong, gently yielding and sweet; bursts of lightly cooked cherry tomatoes; a sweet crunch of green bean. Then there’s the ‘ulu (breadfruit) so pillowy it’s like gnocchi, all with background notes of fennel and plated in an unpretentious heap, the way you might throw together a dish for friends at an impromptu weeknight dinner.

The salad of grilled he‘e (octopus) and watercress is almost as festive. A tender octopus leg is sandwiched between a blanket of peppery watercress tops and a bed of baby carrots and fingerling potatoes, but the surprises are the pops of green olives that take you to the Mediterranean, and a remarkably creamy ricotta that makes you want to linger.

And here’s the other thing: If you know the James Beard Award-nominated Kenney and his restaurants, you see by now that the ingredients and philosophy are steadfastly similar. The difference is that, at Mahina, the treatments are a little more worldly and light, and, unlike the meatier menus at Town and Mud Hen Water, the choices heavily favor local seafood. Obviously, Mahina is a hotel restaurant that needs to cater to a full spectrum of preferences, including those of tired, cranky young guests, so there are dishes such as pizza, a burger and wild boar rigatoni on offer. These friendly concessions aside, the menu gets truly seaworthy with the trio of Kualoa Ranch oysters drizzled with chile pepper water and calamansi lime juice; the aku tartare; and the amberjack crudo. Plus, with entrees of seared white tuna; swordfish; and a full-course Family Feast centered around a market fresh fish (such as whole deep-sea snapper), you’ll want to bookmark this as your new go-to spot for local seafood.

“When you look out of your arriving plane and see an island surrounded by ocean, you automatically think that you are going to have some good seafood. Unfortunately, this is not easily the case,” Kenney says. “I’ve been frequently asked by visitors, ‘Where can I get the best local seafood?’ We wanted to provide an answer. And I wanted to highlight Hawai‘i’s sustainable seafood choices.”

Mahina is also a spot where your Wailuku-born grandfather and your foodie friend from New York can be equally happy. For the local relative, order the Portuguese bean soup with crispy soft-boiled egg (it’s the lightest version that we’ve tried in a lifetime of Portuguese bean soups), and the oily, big-flavored akule filet atop a fresh-fried sheet of pa‘i‘ai (fresh, pounded poi); both are throwbacks to the flavors of an older Hawai‘i. And your cityslicker companion will like the dessert of macadamia nut-studded Pavlova with fresh whipped vanilla cream, lemon-‘olena (turmeric) curd and a pretty medley of seasonal fruits.

Dinner delights aside, there’s also breakfast, lunch and poolside menus, and the open-air ambience makes a cocktail seem like an especially good idea. Since you’re in Waikīkī, although closer to the Ala Wai Canal than to the beach, a cocktail is pretty much de rigueur, actually. Our pick: the daily changing Market Special, a pleasant concoction of spirits, bitters and fresh juice made with whatever veggies are prime at the farmers markets. The one we try is bright orange from the ginger- and ‘olena-tinged carrot juice. It matches the decor perfectly. We’ll toast to that.

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