Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Brunch at Scratchboard Kitchen

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Chicken biscuit sandwich, Scratchboard Kitchen
Fried chicken biscuit sandwich with pimiento cheese and picked red onion on a ranch biscuit

Best Bite: I’m thrilled to finally post about Scratchboard Kitchen, which has quickly emerged as a favorite of mine in the year they’ve been open in downtown Arlington Heights (even amidst all the pandemic pivots). Their Restaurant Week brunch menu was a chance to enjoy both savory and sweet, plus a well-balanced Bloody Mary to start. The chicken biscuit sandwich, with pimento cheese and pickled onions, was cheffy comfort food at its finest.

Winter citrus toast, Scratchboard Kitchen
Citrus toast with mascarpone, citrus, fennel, pollen, and pistachio
Scratchboard Bloody Mary, Scratchboard Kitchen
Scratchboard Bloody Mary with scratch-made mix and premium vodka

Other notes: The strikingly pretty citrus toast was also a hit, dusted with fennel pollen and pistachios with a layer of creamy mascarpone underneath. The ever-rotating pastries here are always delicious, and these were no exception: a lovely apricot pop tart and banana-chocolate mini loaf with a layer of toasted coconut. The sun started shining onto our patio table shortly after they arrived, which ended the meal on an even higher note.

Banana chocolate mini loaf and apricot pop tart, Scratchboard Kitchen
Banana, chocolate, and coconut mini loaf and apricot pop tart with caramelized honey icing

The details: Scratchboard Kitchen, 5 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Dinner at Gaijin

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Shrimp okonomiyaki, Gaijin
Osaka-style okonomiyaki with tempura fried shrimp, corn, creole butter, arare, and udon

Best Bite: Esteemed Chicago chef Paul Virant opened Gaijin in 2019 as Chicago’s first restaurant dedicated to okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake. I was excited to make my first visit during Restaurant Week, when five Osaka-style versions were available as part of the four-course menu. Our group of three chose shrimp, octopus, and pork to share, each topped with “dancing” bonito flakes and kept perfectly warm on the teppan griddle built into our table. I loved all three: the tempura shrimp and corn with caramelized udon noodles, the sweet-and-salty octopus with crispy rice, and the breakfast-leaning pork with bacon and a fried egg. The flavor combinations and textural contrasts, all anchored by the cabbage-studded pancake base, were ones I’d go back for again and again.

Octopus okonomiyaki, Gaijin
Osaka-style okonomiyaki with octopus, hot sauce, honey gastrique, bonito, and crispy rice
Veggie yakisoba, Gaijin
Veggie yakisoba with spinach, mushrooms, sweet corn, cabbage, scallions, carrots, sauce, and sesame

Other notes: The yakisoba in the second course was a delicious tangle of well-cooked vegetables and umami-coated noodles. And I loved the mochi donut, reminiscent of funnel cake but with chewiness from the rice flour, and topped with a coconut and pandan leaf glaze. This also happened to be the best Restaurant Week value I’ve seen in a long time: four generous courses at the lower-tier dinner price.

Pandan-coconut mochi donut, Gaijin
Pandan-coconut mochi donut

The details: Gaijin, 950 W. Lake St., Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2021: Dinner at Girl & the Goat

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2021, held March 19–April 4. To browse past Restaurant Week coverage between 2013 and 2020, click here.

Wood oven shrimp and Gotham Greens salad, Girl & the Goat
Wood oven shrimp & Gotham Greens salad with avocado, pomelo, pickled veggies, quinoa crunch, and limey-herby dressing, Girl & the Goat

Best Bite: This year, Girl & the Goat participated in Restaurant Week for the first time in its almost 11-year history. As I went through the revolving door and took in the restaurant’s trademark wood-burning scent, I felt a range of emotions as I considered what one of my very favorite restaurants, and so many others, had gone through in the past year.

Roasted oysters, Girl & the Goat
Roasted Bosu oysters with yuzu-harissa butter, shio kombu, and finger lime, Girl & the Goat

But on to the food itself: of the 7 shared dishes, the most unique were the roasted oysters, with yuzu punch and gentle heat from the harissa; the wood-oven shrimp with quinoa crunch that elevated a well-balanced salad; and the dessert, a crumb cake served with caramel whipped cream, citrus marmalade, and cheesy ice cream in Stephanie Izard’s characteristically savory dessert style.

Buttery cheesy cake, Girl & the Goat
Buttery cheesy cake with citrus marmalade, Montamore ice cream, and caramel whip, Girl & the Goat

Other notes: The menu also involved some of the classics, like the green beans (still my favorite green beans anywhere) and the goat liver mousse (this time with brioche instead of crumpets). I’d had the crispy short ribs last summer as carryout, but they were even better this time around, fork-tender with bright bursts of grapefruit mingling with creamy avocado, herbs, and chiles.

Crispy beef short ribs, Girl & the Goat
Crispy beef short ribs with avocado and ruby red grapefruit chermoula, Girl & the Goat

The details: Girl & the Goat,  809 W. Randolph St.Chicago.

Travel Eats: A summer getaway to Door County, Wisconsin

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Cherry tree at Seaquist Orchards
Door County’s claim to fame: cherries

We’d faced the fact that there would be no “normal” vacations in 2020, but after months of quarantine, we were desperate for a change of scenery. Door County emerged as our chosen weekend getaway destination for its reasonably close proximity, well-regarded food (especially its cherries!), and peaceful waterfront views to soothe the anxieties of this season. As a disclaimer, we ate exclusively outdoors at restaurants with distanced tables and mask policies.

Blackened Baileys Harbor Fish Company Lake Michigan whitefish, New Orleans-style with spicy Cajun compound butter, au gratin potatoes, and asparagus, Harbor Fish Market & Grille
Blackened Baileys Harbor Fish Company Lake Michigan whitefish, New Orleans-style with spicy Cajun compound butter, au gratin potatoes, and asparagus, Harbor Fish Market & Grille

We were first-timers to Door County, but quickly saw why the area is called the Cape Cod of the Midwest: each town along the peninsula had its own coastal personality, and there was plentiful fresh seafood. At Harbor Fish Market in Bailey’s Harbor, along the shore of Lake Michigan, flaky local whitefish came beautifully blackened with spicy layers of seasoning and compound butter.

The lobster roll at Boathouse on the Bay came highly recommended by friends whose Door County visit barely missed overlapping with ours. It was a solid recommendation, with sizable pieces of lobster that were lightly dressed enough to shine on their own. And the same buttery split-top bun was also used for the hulking Wisconsin bratwurst my husband ordered, to his delight. Our waterfront view added to the East Coast-style experience.

East Coast-style lobster roll on a split-top New England bun, Boathouse on the Bay
East Coast-style lobster roll on a split-top New England bun, Boathouse on the Bay
Lobster & andouille hush puppies with chipotle aioli, The Fireside
Lobster & andouille hush puppies with chipotle aioli (and a Spotted Cow beer), The Fireside

In Egg Harbor, we found unexpectedly creative Cajun-inspired cuisine at The Fireside. We started with hush puppies, richly studded with both andouille and lobster, then finished with a zingy aioli. My fried alligator tacos were topped with a flavorful Southwest-Asian fusion of corn relish, lemongrass, and chili sauce, and the side of grits was ultra-creamy from lots of goat cheese. And because it was our first meal after crossing into Wisconsin, I couldn’t help but pair it with the beloved Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus.

Alligator tacos with cajun fried gator, lemongrass slaw, chili sauce, roasted corn & black bean relish, and a side of goat cheese grits, The Fireside
Alligator tacos with cajun fried gator, lemongrass slaw, chili sauce, roasted corn & black bean relish, and a side of goat cheese grits, The Fireside
Door County cherry pancakes, egg, ham, Old Post Office
Door County cherry pancakes with an egg and hearthstone ham, Old Post Office Restaurant

I was excited for opportunities to sample the ubiquitous local cherries. At breakfast, that meant fluffy cherry pancakes at the charming Old Post Office Restaurant, aptly named for the building’s usage in the early 1900s. As a bonus, our outdoor table afforded a lovely view of the water in Ephraim, our favorite of the towns for its scenery.

Another morning, in Fish Creek, I started the day with perhaps the best vegetarian breakfast sandwich I’ve had. Between two slices of ciabatta were a whopping nine layers of roasted veggies, sauces, cheese, and a jammy egg – complex and delicious.

Veg Out sandwich with house-baked ciabatta, guacamole, feta cheese, tomatoes, roasted sweet potato, pickled onions, Blue Horse sandwich sauce, farm fresh egg, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, and roasted red peppers, Blue Horse Beach Cafe
Veg Out sandwich with house-baked ciabatta, guacamole, feta cheese, tomatoes, roasted sweet potato, pickled onions, Blue Horse sandwich sauce, farm fresh egg, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, and roasted red peppers, Blue Horse Beach Cafe

Another sandwich success was the tuna melt at Stone Harbor in Sturgeon Bay, our last stop of the weekend. The melty Wisconsin cheddar and generously toasted bread made it a fine example of the comfort food classic.

Tuna salad sandwich with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and grilled on wheat bread, Stone Harbor Restaurant
Tuna salad sandwich with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and grilled on wheat bread, Stone Harbor Restaurant
Shortcake crumble sundae with salty, sweet shortcake crumbles, vanilla frozen custard, Door County strawberry compote & fresh whipped cream, Not Licked Yet
Shortcake crumble sundae with salty, sweet shortcake crumbles, vanilla frozen custard, Door County strawberry compote & fresh whipped cream, Not Licked Yet

And like any good getaway destination, there were plenty of sweets. We savored our shortcake crumble sundae with local strawberry compote at Not Licked Yet, a frozen custard shop that’s been in Fish Creek for nearly 40 years. We’d also heard excellent things about the pies at Sweetie Pies and the goat’s milk gelato at Door County Creamery, so planned ahead to save our slices until we could pair the two together. It was absolutely worth the wait.

Three-berry pie, Sweetie Pies; salted caramel and roasted almond and fig gelato, Door County Creamery
To-go slice of three-berry pie, Sweetie Pies; salted caramel and roasted almond and fig gelato, Door County Creamery

The details: The Fireside Restaurant, 7755 Hwy. 42, Egg Harbor; Blue Horse Beach Cafe, 4113 Main St., Fish Creek; Not Licked Yet, 4054 Main St., Fish Creek; Sweetie Pies, 9016 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; Harbor Fish Market & Grille, 8080 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor; Old Post Office Restaurant, 10040 Water St., Ephraim; Door County Creamery, 10653 N Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay; Boathouse on the Bay, 10716 N Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay; Stone Harbor Restaurant, 107 N First Ave., Sturgeon Bay (all Wisconsin).

Restaurant reflections in the time of Covid-19

Homemade pasta yia yia from Lula Cafe
My own homemade pasta yia yia, the closest thing to dining at Lula Cafe right now

It’s May 2020, and my most anticipated restaurant experience this month was a Zoom virtual meeting.

I cooked along with Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel as he demonstrated how to make the restaurant’s famous pasta yia yia. I ordered it for the first time five years ago and it’s been an all-time favorite ever since. As I put it back then, the combination of feta, cinnamon, brown butter, and garlic is the purest form of pasta magic. As much fun as it was to learn to make a dish that has such a special place in my heart, and as heartwarming as it was to see a screen full of more than 100 other Lula devotees and staff members, I couldn’t help but reflect on our current reality. Will we ever gather and dine the same way again?

I join so many others in mourning the uncertain future of restaurants as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve done my best to compartmentalize, to focus on supporting through takeout and delivery, as we stay at home week after week. But there’s no way around it: I deeply miss dining out and cannot conceive of the fact that it may never be quite the same. Restaurants have always felt like safe havens to me, so the current necessity to approach them with fear and caution is heartbreaking.

Combing through years of blog posts has brought back so many memories of meals that were significant not only for the food, but for what they represented in that time of my life. I’m sharing some favorite moments below (in no particular order) as a reminder that meaningful dining experiences go far beyond the plate and utensils, and with the hope for new innovations that inspire the same kind of awe and joy.

Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas. “I’m happy to report that from the moment we walked into the restaurant, our party was treated in a way that befit such a special occasion. The whimsical and strikingly colorful “circus tent” ceiling set an appropriately celebratory tone, and the window beside our table afforded a view of the famous Bellagio fountains, making the whole thing just a bit more magical.”

Any dinner at Girl & the Goat, Chicago. “And then the salmon, which you ordered partially because the server told you the fish was flown in from New Zealand and partially because you can’t believe that salmon could really work with strawberry and beef and peanut and yogurt, could it? But of course it does, all of the distinct components tangled together in the best way. And then there’s the chicken. You’ve come to expect at this point that it will be unlike any chicken dish you’ve had before, especially since the server explained it would be brined to order, glazed with maple-y goodness, and baked in the wood-fire oven. And indeed, you can’t stop talking about how good this chicken is, not to mention the soft, buttery naan and remarkable ramp goddess dressing that come with it. You’ll order dessert without question.”

Four-course brunch at Beast, Portland. “The prix fixe menu that’s posted outside the door is your first glimpse of what you’ll be eating…the staff treated us 24 or so diners with the utmost care, ushering us in right at 10 a.m. and meticulously plating each course in the open kitchen that comprised nearly half of the intimate space. In the other half, two large communal tables were filled by a collection of food-lovers from all over the country… it was just a delight to [share] the experience with people who wanted to soak it in the same way, iPhone-photo-snapping and all.”

Omakase at Shiro’s Sushi, Seattle. “Shiro was a “disciple” of Jiro, as in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and had built something of an institution. We arrived before it opened and stood in line. Two hours and 40 minutes later, we were finally seated at the counter and settled in for omakase, or “chef’s choice.” On it went: red snapper, three cuts of salmon, four cuts of tuna, geoduck (my first time eating it!), king crab leg, octopus, eel that I can only describe as ethereal…and more. The fish was impossibly fresh and masterfully prepared, and the whole experience felt personal and special.”

11-course tasting with wine pairings at Acadia, Chicago. “Soon after, the first course appeared in a shimmering bowl, complete with a pearl spoon that matched the opalescent oyster shell in the center. Hints of black garlic, chive, and eggplant added bite and depth to the salty caviar within the shell. After seeing plating that was so beautifully in tune with the glitzy champagne-and-caviar theme, we knew we were in for a treat.”

Honeymoon pancakes at Eggs ‘n Things, Honolulu. “The nut-studded cakes were unbelievably fluffy underneath their griddled exterior, and the addition of fresh pineapple and the restaurant’s signature coconut syrup made them truly remarkable. I loved these pancakes so much that they merited a repeat visit: we went back for our last meal before heading to the airport to fly home.”

Croissant at Pierre Hermé, Paris. “[We spent three days] in Paris at peak springtime bloom. Brilliantly colored flowers seemed to show up everywhere we looked, and I have to believe that made the food taste even better…Isaphan is the patisserie’s best-known flavor combination: rose, raspberry, and lychee, and the croissant version infused those flavors into the filling, glaze, and candied petals on top. It was so uniquely delicious that I was genuinely forlorn about taking the last bite.

Five-course tasting at Forest Avenue, Dublin“I knew that my last weekend in Dublin had to include a special meal, and after a little research, Forest Avenue fit all the criteria: seasonal and locally sourced Irish cuisine, tasting menu format, reasonable price. But this restaurant was even more of a gem than I ever expected. I stayed impressed through the entire dinner, including an especially dreamy pasta course with buttery, truffle-scented agnolotti and Jerusalem artichoke.”

Momotaro tartare at Momotaro, Chicago. “Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor… I’d already heard great things about the momotaro (Japanese sweet tomato) tartare, and was indeed blown away by how texturally interesting and umami-rich it was, especially as a fully vegetarian dish. Even on a dauntingly extensive menu, this tartare cemented its place as a must-order on all future visits.”

Tiki cocktails at Lost Lake, Chicago. “There’s just so much to love about this tropical oasis. Immediately upon stepping inside, you’re effortlessly transported to a warmer, happier place. The interior features leafy wallpaper, thatched bamboo, and stone walls, all of which strike an impressive balance between kitschy and fashionable. The retro island soundtrack hits the same sweet spot. And Paul McGee…makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.”

For more on how to help restaurants, check out the resources below.

National (U.S.):

Chicago:

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Brunch at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Cubano bocadillo, buttermilk waffle, and citrus French toast, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
“Spanish Cubano” bocadillo with braised pork shoulder, mustard aioli, and housemade English muffin; buttermilk waffle with Marcona almond Nutella and bananas; and citrus French toast with goat cheese butter, honey, and berries

Best Bite: The best part of going to a tapas restaurant is getting to spread the meal across many dishes, and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba’s Spanish brunch offering was no different. With four of us participating in Restaurant Week, we sampled six breakfast-y plates and three desserts. For my best bite, I’m torn between either the Marcona almond-flecked Nutella that came with the waffles, or the toasted Cubano-style breakfast sandwich with braised pork and mustard sauce.

Sausage fried paella rice and jamon serrano eggs benedict, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
Sausage fried paella rice with poached egg; and jamón serrano eggs Benedict with hollandaise and housemade English muffin

Other notes: I was glad to see paella factor into the morning menu, made even better after mixing in the poached egg; same with the twist of using Spanish jamón in eggs Benedict. Included in the menu price was a glass of sangria, a mimosa, or a trip to the DIY Bloody Mary bar, all of which definitely bumped up the value. This was technically a Restaurant Week repeat for me – I first went for lunch way back in 2013, when I was apparently just as impressed with the value (and the use of Marcona almonds).

The details: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, 2024 N. Halsted St.Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Dinner at The Loyalist

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

The Loyalist cheeseburger with onion 3 ways and fries, The Loyalist
The Loyalist cheeseburger with onion 3 ways and fries

Best Bite: I usually don’t pick a Restaurant Week destination because of a cheeseburger, but I’ve been intrigued by The Loyalist’s version ever since it dethroned Au Cheval’s legendary burger a couple of years ago, according to Bon Appetit. Nicknamed the “dirty burg,” it’s an appropriately indulgent affair: the patties are a blend of short rib, chuck, and bacon, and they’re smothered with caramelized onion, thin-sliced pickles, and cheese that oozes over the side of the bun. Considering the richness, two burgers were plenty to share between three of us. Accompanying the plentiful crispy fries were two great dipping options: extra-garlicky aioli and, our group’s surprise favorite, pickling liquid.

Butterscotch pot de creme, The Loyalist
Butterscotch pot de creme

Other notes: While I’m usually satisfied with any creamy butterscotch dessert, this pot de creme was particularly lovely with its salted streusel and dollop of sweet cream. We also made it time to take advantage of some happy hour cocktail specials from our cozy corner booth, and even peeked upstairs at The Loyalist’s upscale tasting menu counterpart, Smyth.

The details: The Loyalist, 177 N. Ada St.Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Dinner at Galit

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Mezze of carrots with cuminy-orange glaze, Bulgarian feta, hazelnut duqqa; kale tabouli with pepitas, delicata squash, apples, garlicky-lemony (with nutritional yeast), Galit
Mezze of carrots with cuminy-orange glaze, Bulgarian feta, hazelnut duqqa; kale tabouli with pepitas, delicata squash, apples, garlicky-lemony (with nutritional yeast)

Best Bite: Galit has drawn crowds and received national attention for its modern take on Middle Eastern food, so I was thrilled to snag an elusive Saturday reservation, especially during Restaurant Week. Our dinner was all about texture, perhaps best demonstrated in the kale tabouli. Snappy apples and pepitas mingled with dressed kale and soft roasted squash, all showered with nutritional yeast (an ingredient that’s on the rise as part of the shift toward plant-based diets).

Salatim of labneh with hyssop, sumac, and sesame; cipollini onions a la Grecque with coriander and Bulgarian feta; ezme with Turkish tomatoes and peppers, walnuts, chives, and hot garlic; pumpkin terahi with urfa bieber, cumin, garlic, nigella, and cilantro; pickles (Yemeite, Bulgarian, Israeli); masabacha hummus with chickpeas, herby tehina, and aleppo; plus pita and crudités, Galit
Salatim of labneh with hyssop, sumac, and sesame; cipollini onions a la Grecque with coriander and Bulgarian feta; ezme with Turkish tomatoes and peppers, walnuts, chives, and hot garlic; pumpkin terahi with urfa bieber, cumin, garlic, nigella, and cilantro; pickles (Yemeite, Bulgarian, Israeli); masabacha hummus with chickpeas, herby tehina, and aleppo; plus pita and crudités

Other notes: I loved mixing and matching all the spreads, dips, and salads, collectively referred to as salatim in Israeli cuisine. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the sweet-and-smoky ezme with tomatoes and walnuts. Even the seemingly familiar dishes deserved every superlative: the hummus was outrageously smooth and luscious, crowned with olive oil and herb-tahini sauce, and the warm pita’s blistered outside and fluffy inside made it the perfect vehicle for dipping.

Altogether, the four colorful courses were a substantial amount of food for our party of three (even including seamless accommodation of my friend’s dietary restriction), so I’d consider it an especially good value for Restaurant Week.

The details: Galit, 2429 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

Chicago Restaurant Week 2020: Lunch at Shaw’s Crab House

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2020, held January 24–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse previous Restaurant Week coverage from 2013–2018.

Mini New England lobster rolls with french fries, Shaw's Crab House
Mini New England lobster rolls with french fries

Best Bite: I was instantly taken with this duo of pint-sized lobster rolls – large enough for the full toasted bun experience, but small enough for a high lobster-to-bun ratio. The piping hot fries paired with the cool, chive-studded lobster were almost enough to transport me to a seaside seafood shack.

Mini key lime and chocolate cake desserts

Other notes: The miniature theme continued into dessert, and my dainty portion of key lime pie was just the right citrusy finish to our rich lunch.

The details: Shaw’s Crab House, 1900 E. Higgins St., Schaumburg.

Travel Eats: Hawaiian honeymoon dining on Kauai and Oahu

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Well, a lot has changed since my last post. I got engaged, took a year off from blogging to plan a wedding, and am now happily married! This also means I’ve become Hillary Weller rather than Hillary Proctor, but the blog name will remain the same for now.

We just returned from 10 days in Hawaii for our honeymoon, so that seemed a fitting return to blogging. We split our time between two Hawaiian islands: Kauai and Oahu. On Kauai, we covered the majority of the island; for Oahu, we stayed primarily in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. This was my first time setting foot anywhere in the state, so I was anxious to try the source of all the Hawaiian flavors I’d enjoyed from afar.

Macadamia nut pancakes with pineapple and coconut syrup, Eggs 'n Things
Macadamia nut pancakes with pineapple and coconut syrup, Eggs ‘n Things (Honolulu)

I’ll start with my favorite dish of the trip. It was one that came highly recommended at Eggs ‘n Things, a beloved Honolulu breakfast spot: macadamia nut pancakes. The nut-studded cakes were unbelievably fluffy underneath their griddled exterior, and the addition of fresh pineapple and the restaurant’s signature coconut syrup made them truly remarkable. I loved these pancakes so much that they merited a repeat visit: we went back for our last meal before heading to the airport to fly home. That time, I ordered a slight variation (banana in the pancakes and macadamia on top) and they were still just as stellar. I also happily took home a bottle of the coconut syrup.

We had a favorite breakfast spot in Kauai, too. A lovely bakery happened to be conveniently located across the road from where we were staying, so we tried a few of their pastry selections. Both the mango muffin and the roasted pineapple croissant-scone hybrid showcased the fruit flavors of the island.

Hawaiian roasted pineapple and chocolate chip croisscones, Passion Bakery Cafe, Kauai
Hawaiian roasted pineapple and chocolate chip croisscones (enjoyed on our oceanfront lanai), Passion Bakery Cafe (Kauai)
Guava muffin, Passion Bakery Cafe, Kauai
Mango muffin, Passion Bakery Cafe (Kauai)
Pakala bowl with açai, peanut butter, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, granola, almonds, and chocolate chips, Little Fish Coffee
Pakala bowl with açai, peanut butter, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, granola, almonds, and chocolate chips, Little Fish Coffee (Kauai)

Another morning dish I’d been anxious to try was the açai bowl, a surfer favorite that’s anchored by an açai berry frozen yogurt-style base, then layered with granola and fresh fruit. At Little Fish Coffee on Kauai, our bowl boasted peanut butter and chocolate chips in addition to the fruit and granola. It was the rich fuel we needed for the rest of the day’s adventures. In Waikiki, we sought out the bowl at Island Vintage Coffee. The açai and granola were delicious, but the sweet local banana and fragrant Hawaiian honey were what really shined.

Original açai bowl with strawberry, blueberry, local banana, Big Island organic honey, and organic granola, Island Vintage Coffee (Honolulu)
Original açai bowl with strawberry, blueberry, local banana, Big Island organic honey, and organic granola, Island Vintage Coffee (Honolulu)
Pink Island shave ice with strawberry, lychee mint, vanilla gelato, fresh strawberries, mochi, lychee popping boba, and condensed milk snow cap, Island Vintage Shave Ice (Honolulu)
Pink Island shave ice with strawberry, lychee mint, vanilla gelato, fresh strawberries, mochi, lychee popping boba, and condensed milk snow cap, Island Vintage Shave Ice (Honolulu)

While we’re on the sweet side of things, let’s talk shave (not shaved!) ice, a traditional frozen treat in Hawaii with all kinds of variations. We went back to Island Vintage for their Pink Island, whose ice mound had half strawberry syrup and half super-refreshing lychee mint syrup, plus mochi, lychee boba, fresh strawberry, and condensed milk to top it off. At Uncle’s on Kauai, they served shave snow, where the creaminess and fruit flavor was already incorporated into the ice before shaving. After adding a haupia (coconut) cream top, I couldn’t help but slurp up every bite.

Strawberry shave snow with haupia (coconut) cream cap, Uncle's Shave Ice (Kauai)
Strawberry shave snow with haupia (coconut) cream cap, Uncle’s Shave Ice (Kauai)
Dole whip swirled with vanilla, Hilo Hattie (Kauai)
Dole whip swirled with vanilla, Hilo Hattie (Kauai)

To be sure, Hawaii wasn’t short on frozen treats – from classic soft-serve pineapple Dole whip to ice cream served in an adorable “hang loose” cone to a sky-high Hula Pie enjoyed along the Waikiki beachfront at Duke’s, our collective sweet tooth remained sated.

Shaka-Boom cone with vanilla soft-serve, chocolate sauce, Oreo cookie dust, and sprinkles, Kokoro Cafe
Shaka-Boom cone with vanilla soft-serve, chocolate sauce, Oreo cookie dust, and sprinkles, Kokoro Cafe (Honolulu)
Kimo's Original Hula Pie with chocolate cookie crust, macadamia nut ice cream, hot fudge, toasted mac nuts, and whipped cream, Duke's Waikiki (Honolulu
Kimo’s Original Hula Pie with chocolate cookie crust, macadamia nut ice cream, hot fudge, toasted mac nuts, and whipped cream, Duke’s Waikiki (Honolulu)

We tried a lot of savory Hawaiian favorites as well. At Lava Lava Beach Club on Kauai, we had loco moco, traditionally a burger patty with egg, rice, and gravy, and in this case with a mountain of fried onions and a delicious patty blend of beef and sweet Portuguese sausage. That meal was extra memorable because we looked up from our beachfront table and spotted a whale in the distance! Later, we also tried a classic, no-fuss plate lunch with freshly-fried chicken katsu, sticky white rice, and macaroni salad.

Hapa Laka loco moco with half beef, half Portuguese sausage, Lava Lava Beach Club
Hapa Laka loco moco with half beef, half Portuguese sausage, Lava Lava Beach Club (Kauai)
Chicken katsu plate lunch, Ai Ono Cafe at Lihue Airport
Chicken katsu plate lunch, Ai Ono Cafe at Lihue Airport (Kauai)

Our most theatrical dining experience by far was at the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai. Our evening began with a tram ride around the property, then we had time to explore the lush grounds on foot. Next, we witnessed the imu ceremony, in which a whole-roasted, leaf-wrapped Kalua pig is carefully removed from its earthen oven.

From there, it was time to enjoy a mai tai and the full buffet. This was my chance to try poi, a starchy Hawaiian staple that’s polarizing among visitors. Unfortunately, I had to agree with the naysayers: even when paired with the meat, the poi retained an unpleasant flavor, and its paste-like texture only made matters worse. But there were plenty of other dishes to enjoy, like the mahimahi, purple yams, lomi salmon, and of course the pig, whose smoke-kissed flavor was in a class of its own. Dinner was also accompanied by live Hawaiian music and a hula lesson.

Finally, we moved to the amphitheater for the stage show, featuring dances and rituals that represent many of Hawaii’s cultural influences (plus some impressive pyrotechnics). The whole experience was as seamless and well-choreographed as a Disney enterprise – it was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip.

Kalua roasted pig, poi, lomi salmon, sweet & sour mahimahi, macaroni salad, guava and pineapple breads, coconut rice pudding, mai tai, and more from the dinner buffet at Smith Family Garden Luau
Kalua roasted pig, poi, lomi salmon, sweet & sour mahimahi, macaroni salad, guava and pineapple breads, coconut rice pudding, mai tai, and more from the dinner buffet at Smith Family Garden Luau (Kauai)
Mixed ahi and salmon poké with spicy mayo, Shaka Poke (Honolulu)
Ahi-salmon mixed poke with avocado and spicy mayo (eaten on Waikiki Beach in view of Diamond Head), Shaka Poke (Honolulu)

Seafood was another top priority during our time in Hawaii. I had the chance to enjoy poke in two forms, one on each island. At Shaka Poke, a tucked-away gem in one of Waikiki’s shopping malls, hunks of salmon and ahi tuna came dressed in spicy mayo with seaweed and avocado. It was the ideal humble meal to eat on the beach, especially with a view of the resort skyline and Diamond Head at dusk. On Kauai, Sam’s Ocean View used tuna poke to adorn wonton chip nachos, alongside avocado, spicy aioli, and plenty of black sesame. It was the kind of snack you can’t stop eating.

The most eclectic fish I tried during the trip was moonfish at Mahina & Sun’s in Honolulu. The fish itself was dense and held up to the mixture of Mediterranean flavors in the rest of the dish – lots of fennel, olive, sumac, and lightly pickled cucumber, plus grilled flatbread to sop it all up.

Ahi poke nachos with chopped avocado, red bell pepper salsa, wasabi, and sriracha aioli over wonton chips, Sam's Ocean View
Ahi poke nachos with chopped avocado, red bell pepper salsa, wasabi, and sriracha aioli over wonton chips, Sam’s Ocean View (Kauai)
Opah (moonfish) with cucumber, fennel, suman, flatbread, and black olive tapenade, Mahina & Sun's (Honolulu)
Opah (moonfish) with cucumber, fennel, sumac, flatbread, and black olive tapenade, Mahina & Sun’s (Honolulu)
Curry udon with soft-boiled egg, Marukame Udon (Honolulu)
Curry udon with soft-boiled egg, Marukame Udon (Honolulu)

On our second night in Honolulu, we joined the throngs of people in line for Marukame Udon. The wait was very much worth it for tender, hand-pulled udon noodles in a rich curry broth. Between picking up your noodle bowl and getting to the cash register, you could select tempura items and other appetizers buffet-style, so I took that as an opportunity to try spam musubi (seared slice of spam over rice with a seaweed wrapper, like nigiri). It was easy to see why it’s such a popular Hawaiian snack.

Our last dinner of the trip was at Senia, Honolulu’s buzziest fine-dining restaurant. There was a lot to love on the menu; the ahi brioche and citrus-cured hamachi both celebrated Hawaiian flavors in a creative and beautiful way.

It was certainly a special introduction to Hawaii for me…but exploring the cuisine of the islands we didn’t visit seems like a very good excuse to return!

Ahi brioche, Senia (Honolulu)
Ahi brioche, Senia (Honolulu)
Citrus-cured hamachi with avocado, jalapeño, and wakame, Senia (Honolulu)
Citrus-cured hamachi with avocado, jalapeño, and wakame, Senia (Honolulu)

The details: Eggs ‘n Things, 339 Saratoga Rd., Honolulu; Passion Bakery Cafe, 4-356 Kuhio Hwy., Ste. 121, Kapa’a; Uncle’s Shave Ice, 4454 Nuhou St. #419, Lihue; Smith Family Garden Luau, 3-5971 Kuhio Hwy., Kapa’a; Lava Lava Beach Club, 420 Papaloa Rd., Kapa’a; Little Fish Coffee, 3900 Hanapepe Rd., Ste. D, Hanapepe; Sam’s Ocean View, 4-1546 Kuhio Hwy., Kapa’a; Hilo Hattie, 3-3252 Kuhio Hwy., Lihue; Ai Ono Cafe at Lihue Airport, 3901 Mokulele Loop, Lihue; Mahina & Sun’s, 412 Lewers St., Honolulu; Marukame Udon, 2310 Kūhiō Ave #124, Honolulu; Shaka Poke, 2250 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; Duke’s Waikiki, 2335 Kalakaua Ave., Ste. 116, Honolulu; Island Vintage Coffee, 2301 Kalakaua Ave. #C215, Honolulu; Senia, 75 N. King St., Honolulu; Kokoro Cafe, 2233 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; Island Vintage Shave Ice, 2201 Kalakaua Ave., Kiosk B-1, Honolulu (all Hawaii).