Eating Local

September 5, 2014 | By Nadine Kam

Hula Grill Waikiki serves fresh, farm-to-table dishes in the heart of Waikiki.

There’s more to Hula Grill Waikiki than what’s on the plate. The menu is just a starting point for an “Eat Local” philosophy that not only promotes local agriculture, but extends into the community, encouraging next generation diners to think about the source of their nourishment and become better stewards of the land.

The restaurant opened in 2004 to give guests of the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach one more dining option, and in the beginning, it was simply known as the younger sibling of Duke’s Waikiki, the popular beachfront restaurant named after Hawai‘i surf icon Duke Kahanamoku.

Ten years later, Hula Grill Waikiki is marking its anniversary year as a destination restaurant in its own right, forging an identity as a showcase for Hawai‘i’s sustainability movement.

The restaurant embraces consulting chef Peter Merriman’s philosophy of using the best regional ingredients available, from produce to line-caught fish and grass-fed beef. He was one of the 12 founders of the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement that began in 1991.

“Peter believes that the best way to run a restaurant is to serve the best of local ingredients to guests,” says Hula Grill general manager Dianne Vicheinrut. “A lot of menu items are not trying to appeal to what tourists think they want, but food and vegetables that they would not be exposed to at home.

“With kampachi, we serve the whole fish from head to tail. It’s very delicious, but for some people, it’s not what they know fish to be; they expect a fillet. But we bring it out, and they enjoy it.”

A “Localicious” salad has a little bit of everything in it from across O‘ahu, including ‘Nalo Farms’ mesclun, Kahuku sea asparagus, sweet ‘Ewa onion and Ho Farms’ tomatoes, all drizzled with a lime-ginger miso vinaigrette.

“People notice the difference, and our servers have to explain ‘what is that’ a lot of the time,” Vicheinrut says. “They’re trained for that. We have tests that are really involved.”

Central to the restaurant’s offerings is a relaxing weekend brunch with such delicious and satisfying options such as Korean gochujang-spiced chicken “lollipops,” a thick-cut bacon eggs Benedict, poke tacos and lobster salad sliders. In the evening, a Chef’s Tasting Menu and nightly specials that highlight the best of seasonal produce, meat and seafood.

The earlybird three-course, prix fixe tasting menu is offered from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, with choice starter, entree and dessert, at less than $30 per person.

“We’re in a hotel, but Hula Grill is not a hotel restaurant, so our prices are very competitive,” Vicheinrut says of the restaurant, which is part of the TS Restaurants group co-founded by Rob Thibaut and Sandy Saxten in the spirit of fun and aloha. “We want to be affordable and accessible to everyone.”

The tasting menu might start with a potsticker duo of kalua pork with ponzu, and lobster and scallop with guava plum sauce, before moving on to entrees of ginger-pear glazed chicken, kabocha gnocchi, fresh local fish served with a chili-beurre blanc, grilled steak with shiitake cream sauce, or charred short ribs glazed with a soytamarind sauce.

A portion of proceeds from the Chef’s Tasting Menu is donated to local nonprofits to foster food sustainability in the islands. “Legacy of Aloha” is the name of the company’s charitable efforts, based on serving the community in a lasting, positive way. Funds raised have been donated to kumu hula in support of the islands’ cultural legacy and the restaurant’s namesake. And, recent nonprofit partners are Paepae O He‘eia, dedicated to preserving an ancient Hawaiian fishpond located in He‘eia; Papahana Kualoa, where they’re helping to preserve a taro lo‘i; Ronald McDonald House; Sustainable Coastlines; and the Kokua Foundation.

“At He‘eia, our staff goes into the fishponds to help remove invasive species, and we use the limu there in our restaurants.” Staffers have also volunteered with beach cleanups and provided healthful lunches for fellow volunteers.

Beyond monetary gifts, Vicheinrut says staffers go out into the community and fields to get their hands dirty in the belief that giving must be dynamic to get a sense of why help is needed.

The outreach is particularly important when it involves raising children to eat well and tend to the ‘aina. Hula Grill Waikiki has partnered with a handful of schools including Waikiki Elementary, Liholiho Elelmentary, Nanaikapono Elementary and Moanalua High School through Educator of the Month, garden programs and Healthy Eating Food demonstrations.

In some instances, the children are taught to grow vegetables, and at harvest time, are invited to the restaurant to have a meal incorporating their produce.

“The kids are very excited about vegetables when they can be part of the process,” Vicheinrut says. “They might start out saying, ‘I don’t like radishes,’ but after growing them and picking them out of the garden, they take a bite and say, ‘I love radishes!'”

To make eating fruit more fun, Hula Grill Waikiki’s chefs have hosted demonstrations for keiki making “sushi” of bananas topped with peanut butter.

“The teachers send back thank-you notes, and that’s when we realize the impact of what kids remember and what they enjoy,” Vicheinrut says. “They went back home and made banana sushi, so they’re sharing what they learn with their families.”

Hula Grill Waikiki
2335 Kalakaua Ave. [C:8 Waikiki Map]
(808) 923-4852