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March 29, 2006

Uh Oh


Dominic Armato
My favorite part of vacation planning is restaurant research.

Surprise!

I love combing the forums, researching chefs, finding menus online or calling places to ask if they could fax one to me, making reservations months ahead, if necessary. When I was in college, I always felt that having a stack of four or five tickets for upcoming concerts was a great feeling. These days, I feel that way about restaurant reservations. As such, our restaurant planning for this trip was something of a departure.

On our last trip to Hawaii, I made us reservations at five different restaurants over six nights, spread all over the Big Island. We decided to do two nights at the resort restaurant, since it was highly regarded and easy. We ended up cancelling one of our other reservations to do a third, and came home wishing we'd eaten there more. The name of the restaurant is Pahu i'a, and I returned last April, declaring it the best fish restaurant I'd ever come across. Over three meals, my sweetheart and I tasted 11 different dishes, the least of which was excellent, and the best of which may very well have been The Best Fish Dish I've Ever Tasted. So when we were making plans for our return, I asked Jern if she felt the need to have dinner at any other restaurants. Yeah. Me neither. So we booked Pahu i'a for five nights straight, starting with last night. Since we managed to get through nearly half of the entire menu on our first trip, I felt comfortable in assuming that we didn't just happen to catch a couple of great dishes that gave us an inflated opinion of the place.

So now I'm worried.

Our dinner last night wasn't bad, by any stretch of the imagination. It was just... underwhelming. Especially considering the incredible standard they'd set on our previous visit. It started well enough, with both of us getting sucked in by a trio of soups... Lobster Bisque, Chilled Edamame Soup and Molokai Sweet Potato Soup with Poached Shrimp. The lobster bisque was delicious, but not unlike any lobster bisque we could get from any number of other establishments. I thought the edamame soup was wonderful... light, sweet, green, slightly creamy and generally delicious. And the molokai sweet potato soup was fantastic. There were a myriad of flavors going on, many of which seemed very familiar, but none of which I could quite put a finger on. It was aggressively seasoned, spicy, pungent, explosive... really, really enjoyable.

Then, entrees.

I had a grilled kanpachi with an orange sauce, shaved fennel, orange segments and fritters made with corn and shrimp. It was... okay. The execution wasn't crisp. The flavors didn't pop like they did on our previous visit. I couldn't say it was a bad dish, but it just didn't have any of the life and energy we'd previously seen. It seemed like all of the components for greatness were present, but lazily assembled. Jern, in a brief moment of total insanity, opted to skip fish altogether and have a vegetable risotto. It was rather loose for a risotto, I thought, and desperately in need of salt... a simple and necessary adjustment that would have been plainly obvious to anybody who bothered to taste it, much less the chef who prepared it.

Afterwards, I tried to determine if they'd had a change in lead kitchen personnel, but the host had only been with the restaurant for three months and didn't seem to know. Here's hoping last night was an aberration, or it will go down as one of the most unfortunate restaurant deaths I've yet to witness.

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