Kaua’i Grill at St. Regis Princeville is pure, decadent heaven

The north shore of the Garden Isle of Kaua’i has its own special beauty. So beautiful in fact that the moku (district) overlooking Hanalei Bay was named Halele’a (House of Joy) and was known throughout the islands as being one of the most beautiful locations in the Hawaiian archipelago. Originally designated as kula for the maka’ainana (commoners) for harvesting the bounty of both land and sea, the area gained royal attention sometime after Kaua’i peacefully joined the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1810. That legend tells of when King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma visited this remote rampart of their kingdom in 1860, they were so struck by the beauty of Halele’a that they renamed the area Princeville in honor of their son Prince Albert. The less romantic version of the story holds that the area was named in honor of the young prince by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Scotsman by the name of Robert Crichton Wyllie.

Hardly the first Westerner to be transfigured by the idyll of the region, the producers of the 1958 film South Pacific turned a Princeville sea cliff into an international icon as the setting for Emile de Becque’s plantation home. The seacliff was originally known to Ancient Hawaiians as Pu’u Pa’oa— Pu’u referring to any protuberance, whether physical or ecological, Pa’oa referring to the divining rod which the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, Pele, would use to seek optimal sites for new craters.

Additional development—instead of Pele’s craters—followed in the 1960s and in 1985 a luxury resort was built on Pu’u Pa’oa, the site that had by then inspired the royalty of both Hawai’i and Hollywood. The property was renovated and reflagged as The St. Regis Princeville in 2009.

The architecture of the large palmwood-floored lobby is almost overwhelming, with a Murano glass chandelier atop comfortable island-style furnishings and towering glass panes providing simply luscious views of Hanalei Bay, from the ocean to the picture-postcard coastline punctuated by Mt. Makana to the lush mountain valleys which were enveloped in a thick mist of Kaua’i’s blessing (‘ua – rain). We don’t use the word “magic” lightly, but when a place you’ve been to several times before still never fails to raise goosebumps when you return, it’s more than appropriate.

Of course, we could rattle on about Kaua’i all day, but the real “meat” of this evening’s excursion is the St. Regis Princeville’s signature restaurant, Kaua’i Grill. The concept is by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who in 2006 partnered with St. Regis parent Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwideto create Culinary Concepts, which has been the genesis of Starwood and freestanding restaurant concepts. Kaua’i Grill is part of the “Resort” suite of restaurants, which combine the core aesthetic of other Culinary Concepts brands with local flair. “Resort” stable mate restaurants are also at St. Regis resorts in Puerto Rico and French Polynesia.

Kaua’i Grill is located in a quiet space with the same commanding view of Hanalei Bay as the lobby, down a level of stairs. The décor is comfortably masculine, with rich dark zebra woods and soft leather crowned with a shell-shaped fabric ceiling that lights in panels as the sun sets into the Pacific Ocean outside the panoramic windows. As the outside light disappears, warmth begins to emanate from the inside, and the comfortable booths lining the exterior of the room seem almost to glow from within.

Appetizers are where the kitchen has a chance to really strut its stuff, and what stuff it must be made of here! While the boldness and freshness of high quality ingredients can be combined so that each is celebrated on its own merit, it is an even greater chore to perfectly combine everything into a harmonious bite that transcends the flavor of the individual components, creating a sort of higher appreciation of the art of cooking. This, friends, is haute cuisine, and it’s been so well done in the Hamachi Sashimi with Radish and Avocado Soy-Ginger Dressing. The fish is so subtle and fine that the dressing, radish, and avocado seem to overtake but not overpower.

The Hamachi starred again alongside fresh ahi atop a cube of flash fried rice spiced up with a chipotle emulsion. A great little jaunt through some different textures this: the pleasant fleshiness of the fish, the heat of the pepper, and the crunch, then warm gooey goodness of the rice. Having learned to love sashimi alongside the light acid of little bubbly, we enjoyed this with a glass of non-vintage Piper-Heidsieck. Speaking of wine, we do have a note. The food is clearly the star of the show at Kaua’i Grill; wine lovers who revel in lengthy discussions with a seasoned sommelier about the perfect pairing may not be able to indulge. Our server provided some solid pairing suggestions and was generally delightful, but neither good nor bad, there’s definitely a sense the focus is on the food—not that anybody can complain about that!

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Capping off an enough-for-a-meal-alone appetizers were well-spiced-and-delightfully-fragrant chicken samosas (think savory spice, not necessarily heat, in the vein of Indian master cookery) with delightfully cooling cilantro yogurt, but especially notable was the crispy poached egg on a toasted brioche cube that definitely betrays a labor of love. The egg is slowly and delicately poached in its own shell and then extracted and flash fried before being set astraddle the brioche, crowned with caviar, and settled aside a dollop of vodka crème fraîche. The center perfectly poached; the rich flavor of the egg, slightly alcoholic crème, and salty bursts of sea-scented caviar make this an extraordinary starter.

Our first pass at the main course, a brief encounter with a local Makaweli grass-fed Ribeye wasn’t quite what a Ribeye-lover might expect (the varied diet of grass-fed beef produces variable consistency) but the imported Japanese Wagyu that followed was, in a word, heavenly. It could have been cut with a butter knife, was perfectly seasoned, and had marbling that had to be photographed to be believed (see our photos for a drop-dead shot of it). Even the marbling had marbling. It’s so buttery and delicious the heart beats a little faster and one could almost swear the sound of angels trumpeting filled the air. Semantics aside, it’s truly amazing, and worth the $23 an ounce. The minimum is three ounces; we had six, and because it’s so rich that’s really plenty.

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Beginning to straggle after such a great parade of food, dessert almost became a pass, but we were tempted by a cake of layered crepes with a caramelized brulee topping with mango coulis and passion seeds. The spongey not-too-sweet sensation of the crepes was regally elevated by the mango, and the flavor of the passion seeds seemed rather muted until we added a sip of the 2010 Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste s Sauternes, which was almost like a fuse for the flavor of the passion seeds—they fairly exploded with each bite after a sip of the wine.

Chef de Cuisine Maxime Michaud is no stranger to the scents and flavors of the region; he’s been on Kaua’i for three years, following another Pacific posting at the St. Regis Bora Bora in French Polynesia. Like concept developer Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michaud hails from alpine France, near the Swiss border, and similarly wields a knife handily capable of constructing the bold flavors of the Asia-Pacific region with the carefully curated blend of imported ingredients with the best Kaua’i has to offer. The rest of the staff at Kaua’i Grill, from the charming general manager to the swarms of hospitable, smiling servers, are most decidedly of the St. Regis pedigree – pride in their work, attention to detail, and desire to share world-class hospitality are readily apparent. Like most who visit Kaua’i’s north shore and the St. Regis Princeville, we cannot wait to return.

Open for Dinner Tuesday – Thursday 5:30 – 9:30; Friday & Saturday 5:30 – 10. Reservations suggested via OpenTable or by calling 808-826-0602. Appetizers, Raw Bar, and Small Plates $15 – $28; Entrees/Mains from $37. Complimentary Valet. Mahalo nui loa and warmest Aloha to the St. Regis Princeville for their hospitality and for providing the meal reviewed in this article.

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