Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
As we start the Year of the Water Rabbit and also the third year since COVID-19 became a household word, how has the world of food and wine adapted to changes brought on by a global pandemic?
Even with businesses reopening without masks, vaccination requirements or social distancing restrictions, it seems that many in the restaurant industry decided on alternate employment. One of our favorite neighborhood take-out establishments, Dean’s Drive Inn closed in June 2022 after almost 16 years of business. They first weathered a flood in March 2021 with classmates arranging a fundraiser to cover the additional costs of cleanup. As they finally reopened their dining room, they had to revert to just take-out due to a lack of staff. The final straw was the increase in food and supply costs.
In Kaimukï, Chef Russell Siu shuttered 3660 on the Rise after 30 years primarily due to staffing issues and currently only hosts special events in his back banquet rooms. He said staffing issues were the driving force behind the change as he often would only have one or two servers and two or three cooks so he would be working seven days a week. Converting just to special events means he now knows his exact staffing needs. These challenges aren’t limited to the 50th state. I listened to a Zoom session arranged by Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya highlighting the Champagne house of H. Billiot. Fourth-generation owner, Laetitia Billiot stated that due to issues obtaining clear Champagne bottles this year, that they won’t be producing any Rose Champagne. One of the participants asked if he brought his own bottles to the Domaine, if she could fill those bottles with Rose Champagne.
Dine Out … When Possible
When the pandemic first reached our shores and restaurants and bars were first forced to shut down, then slowly re-open, we supported restaurants by purchasing quite a bit of take-out. However, with inflation increasing the price of most food items, the implementation of county guidelines regarding environmentally friendly take-out containers and supply chain issues, I think it may be better to dine in when possible. Of course the caveat is “when possible” as everyone is affected by inflation, including your household budget and for me, personally, I will have been retired for almost a year as you read this and my income has been reduced a little over 80%. So needless to say, the Tatsumotos don’t visit restaurants nearly as frequently as a year ago.
But we still do have our favorites when the occasion calls for dining out such as Fête in Chinatown. Fête’s Chef Robynne Mai‘i won a well-deserved James Beard award last year and the restaurant focuses on supporting local produce farmers, meat, poultry and seafood purveyors as well as local specialty products. It also doesn’t hurt that their Korean Bavette steak is one of the top three meat dishes I’ve ever sampled in the state, especially with the ginger-scallion fried rice, Asian pear slaw and sunny side egg. Or that JP’s Risotto with local Ali‘i mushrooms and garlic chives topped with crispy prosciutto and the onsen runny egg. Almost makes me forget about fried rice …
We also include Merriman’s in our dining rotation as Chef Peter Merriman’s was one of the few restaurants to install UV sterilization lights in their air-conditioning ducts once restaurants were allowed to reopen after the initial shutdown. OK, my arm might be twisted to sample their Parmesan Truffle Fries or the Fish & Shrimp & Chips. And we’ll always leave room for the Waialua Chocolate Purse to end the meal. They also recently brought back happy hour, which we used to enjoy prior to COVID-19. Once restaurants fully reopened, the happy hour was limited just to tacos but they now offer the full happy hour menu including $2 off cocktails, beer and wine.
And closer to home, we continue to dine-in and take-out from Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant. Barry and Raymond Siu, along with their spouses, retired several years ago but we’ve continued to patronize Pah Ke’s. First just with take-out during the pandemic as they had staffing issues and were closed for dine-in, but now also drop in for dinner. Throughout the pandemic, whenever Ms. S had to work the weekend, she would always treat her technician to lunch with Pah Ke’s take-out. One technician liked the food so much that he now makes the drive from Mililani to visit Pah Ke’s. We usually always order the Shrimp Fried Rice, Beef with Sweet and Sour Cabbage and the Singapore Mai Fun. Though the Boneless Minute Chicken with Cake Noodle and the Chicken and Abalone with Black Mushroom Casserole also somehow finds a way onto our table.
Also Support Your Local Farmer
In the midst of the pandemic, while I was still gainfully employed, I regularly purchased local produce through Farm Link Hawaii, a company that procures produce and groceries from local farmers and delivers directly to your front door several times per week. The only downside to purchasing local products is the cost is higher (as everything is compared to mainland prices) though the upside is food security for the state – the more local we purchase, the less we have to depend on shipping food into the state. However, since retirement, I usually only purchase gift cards from Farm Link for family birthdays and holidays as well as Chef Bob McGee’s charcuterie produced from local pork.
These days, I’m more likely to peruse local produce from the supermarket or multiple farmer’s markets throughout the island. Safeway Käne‘ohe makes it easy as they have a separate section for locally grown produce. You have to look for the locally grown products scattered throughout the produce area at Foodland and Times.
What About the Wining Part?
Hawai‘i only has one local winery on the slopes of Haleakalä in Ulupalakua: MauiWine. And yes, I still purchase their Lokelani Sparkling Rose to sip alone or to use in cocktails as well as their Maui Blanc pineapple wine for use in cocktails. However, most of our wine purchases are at the R. Fields shop at the Kailua Foodland, which has an excellent selection of well-priced wines that pair with food. We also occasionally stop at Fujioka Wine Times at the Market City Shopping Center and Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquor in the Aikahi Park Shopping Center. Another great source to procure wine is through Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya’s Wine Posse on his website, chuckfuruyauncorked.com. For $135 to $145, he features four different wines (the December offering highlighted four sparkling wines for the holidays). The cost includes tax and delivery to most addresses on O‘ahu ($33.75 to $36.25 per bottle) and so far, we haven’t been disappointed with any bottle in his Wine Posse bag.
Though there’s only one winery in Hawai‘i, there are many other options for adult beverages in the state. There are many locally distilled gin, vodka and whiskey that you can find at your neighborhood supermarket. There’s also Islander Sake Brewery brewed on the Big Island (it started in Kaka‘ako but operations recently moved to the Big Island) as well as shochu produced from local purple sweet potatoes created by the Hawaiian Shochu Company in Hale‘iwa. Because the shochu is made from just a husband-and-wife team, it’s only available directly from the distillery in Hale‘iwa.
So there are many ways to support the local food and wine (liquor) scene in the state until the consequences of COVID-19 have passed.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a retired clinical pharmacist. However, he and his wife still enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”