Merriman’s Fish House Executive Chef Mark Arriola is bent over a cutting board preparing tonight’s special. His version of bibimbap contains homemade kalua pork, plump Kauai Shrimp, organic jasmine rice and a soft-cooked egg gathered from his daughter’s chicken coop.
“I’m going to meet Peter Merriman at his house on Oahu tomorrow for an article in Hana Hou magazine,” he says. “Sunny Savage forages wild food and Native Hawaiian plants. So we are going to make dishes from what she’s gathered.
“I have no idea what it is. I’ll just have to taste it and go from there,” he adds while slicing thin strips of kampachi bacon, the finishing touch for tonight’s special. The Almaco jack fish is farmed in Kona and Mark has cured it like he would bacon.
Another special for the evening is striped marlin crudo ($16). Rectangles of raw fish are topped with cubes of roasted Molokai sweet potatoes tossed in passion fruit puree. A whisper of minced cilantro, as well as fresh and local corn kernels, are sprinkled over. A final touch of truffled popcorn adds earthy nuttiness to the brightly flavored dish. Underneath, there’s a glowing yellow aji amarillo sauce made with a mild chili pepper that SeriousEats.com describes as, “If there were a chili that tastes like sunshine, this would be it.”
A cascade of juicy flavor makes the Kauai Fresh Farms tomato, Moloaa beets and papaya salad ($13) delightful to eat. Slices of unripe green tomatoes alternate with bright red, ripe tomatoes. Succulent papaya cubes and sweet beets remind me of a beautiful garden, just on a plate. Creamy macadamia nut vinaigrette and tangy Kauai Kunana Dairy goat cheese turn the yum factor up to scrumptious.
Eating Merriman’s original wok charred ahi ($39) is a journey through multiple sensations. Rounds of cucumber cilantro sauce spiked with wasabi flank a silky puree made from local heart of palm. Bits of fragrant black rice, nubs of crisp pohole (fiddlehead fern), diced white onion and cubes of fresh tomato add zest and crunch to the creamy ahi caught by Cody Kimura.
“We play around to keep things exciting,” Mark says of Merriman’s seafood specials. “Cody also brings us fish like snapper, mahi and ono. When he dives, he brings us cigar-sized opelu (mackerel), squid or tako (octopus).”
Lee Zeidner trolls between Kauai and Niihau using Kauai-made Mark White lures. Her fresh catch is featured in the olive oil seared ono ($37). Wahoo easily drys when cooked. To keep it moist, Mark and his staff slow cook it in a paste of basil, garlic and olive oil to 107 degrees. Just before it’s served, the fish is quickly seared and placed on a luxurious yet simple sauce of Kauai Fresh Farms tomatoes, garlic cloves and extra virgin olive oil. Kale is studded with lemon segments, which break down when the kale is sautéed, adding pops of lemon with each bite. Soft and buttery Parisian-style gnocchi are pan-seared so there’s a bit of caramelization on their plump sides.
Recently, Merriman’s Fish House was awarded the 2015 Silver Hale Aina Award for Best Kauai Restaurant from readers of Honolulu magazine. You can try their award-winning food during a four-course prefixed menu for Christmas ($79) and New Year’s Eve. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve the regular menu will be accentuated with specials.
Merriman’s Fish House
Located in The Shops At Kukuiula
2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka Road, Koloa
Marta Lane, a Kauai-based food writer since 2010, is the author of “Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.”