Plant-to-Plate Dining in Kona, Hawaii
On our last night in Hawaii, I had the chance to dine at ’Ulu Ocean Grill, the newest restaurant at Four Seasons Resort Hualāla’i at Historic Ka‘ūpūlehu. The name “Ulu” derives from the Ka‘upulehu region’s history, as this is the area where ancestral Hawaiians grew breadfruit. The Hawaiian Ka ’ulu pulehu means “the roasted breadfruit,” and ’ulu means simply “breadfruit.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Executive Chef James Babian and talk a little bit about the menu. Here is what he had to say.
How would you describe ’Ulu’s new look?
The atmosphere here is fun, open and modern. We wanted to achieve a feeling of fun dining as opposed to fine dining. Every seat has a great view of the ocean, and inside there are glass bubble partitions, mother-of-pearl on the ceiling, light-sand-coloured tile and local artwork. The bar is central to the restaurant, which provides a good vibe and energy.
Since the restaurant’s name means “breadfruit,” do you feature it on the menu? What’s it like?
Indeed we do. Breadfruit tastes like a root vegetable or potato. We feature it as a chip and bar snack and incorporate it into several of our menu items. For example, we have our ’Ulu Crusted Mahi, where we roast the breadfruit with olive oil and smoked Hawaiian sea salt. We make a purée out of it, crush breadfruit chips up and mix with panko, spices, a little lemon grass, then crust the fresh mahi with that and pan-sear it. We serve it over corn purée and fresh corn.
That sounds delicious! Are there a lot of local ingredients used on the menu?
Definitely. Our philosophy is “plant to plate.” We know we are guests here of the land and the island, and we’ve done a lot to push sustainability. I was president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. We put together a committee to work towards sustainable agriculture. Now, every November, we have a farmer/chef symposium at the Hotel. We invite all of our farmers—about 50 or 60 show up—and we put a wish list together to see what ingredients are available and what we can start to grow. From that meeting last year we got some major staples that are now grown here on the island instead of imported from the mainland.
This sounds a lot like a Hawaiian word I learned today at the cultural centre: kuleana, meaning responsibility.
Yes. We feel it’s important and the right thing to do. Around 70 percent of the items on the menu are sourced locally. We focus on plant to plate, ingredient compatibility, good portions and a good value.
Well, I’d say the view alone makes dining at ’Ulu an excellent value!
Yes, it definitely does! Like I said, every table has a great view. We also have our fire pit now, if you’d like to enjoy a pre-dinner or after-dinner cocktail outdoors.
Chef Babian prepared a tasting menu for me so that I could try a variety of dishes from makai (the ocean) and mauka (the mountain). Here are my favourite picks:
• Hawaiian ahi poke with sea asparagus, ogo (fresh seaweed), Maui onions, white (soy sauce) and sesame oil.
• Roasted Kekela Farms beet salad with smoked Puna goat cheese and a poha berry vinaigrette. (The poha berries grow locally on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.)
• Kona coffee–crusted steak with Kiawe smoked potatoes and Kekela Farms Swiss chard.
• The Fortunate Pineapple with Greek yogurt, caramelised pineapple, papaya, mango, pineapple sorbet and a fortune cookie, which holds a fact about the island.
What did our other jet trip journalist, Adam H. Graham, think of Kona? Find out here.