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Category: Postcard

Postcard from Hawaii: Aquacultured abalone

Aqua1What started out as a futuristic experiment in generating electricity is now generating something completely different –- abalone and lobster. Near the Kona airport on the big island of Hawaii, the awkwardly named National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority still houses a plant for making electricity, but there’s some serious aquaculture going on, too.

When the authority was planned in 1974, the plan was to pull cold water from the ocean depths and warm water from the shore and use the temperature difference to turn a turbine and generate electricity.

That effort is still ongoing and may yet pay off. But what’s already drawing dividends are a couple of forward-thinking aquaculture projects at the site. Big Island Abalone Corporation uses that nutrient-rich deep water and the area’s nearly constant sunshine to feed its Japanese breed of abalone. They’re now producing nearly 60 tons per year and thanks to recent expansion hope to hit 100 tons by the end of 2012.

Unlike California abalone, which is being successfully aquacultured in smaller amounts on the Central Coast, this Japanese Ezo variety doesn’t need tenderizing before cooking. It’s already being served at several restaurants in the islands, including Roy’s and Alan Wong’s, and at Benu in San Francisco and Terra in the Napa Valley.

The NELHA facility is also host to Kona Cold Lobsters, which distributes Maine lobster on the islands using the cold water to hold them, a salt company, an outfit desalinating and bottling deep ocean water, and even a company farming sea horses (not for consumption).

Another tenant, formerly operating as Kona Blue, has delivered promising results but is currently looking for investors to back its deep-water farming of kampachi. It’s also looking into farming other fish, including grouper.

[UPDATED: THE PHONE NUMBER ORIGINALLY GIVEN WAS FOR ADMINISTRATION] Tours offered every Friday morning for $29 (students and seniors $25), reservations required. 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Highway, No. 101, Kailua Kona, Hawaii, (808) 329-8073, www.FriendsOfNELHA.org.

--Russ Parsons

Photo: The sorting line at Big Island Abalone; credit Kathy Parsons/For The Times.

Postcard from Hawaii: Peter Merriman, the aloha Alice Waters

Peter Merriman

When it comes to farm-to-table restaurants in Hawaii, all roads lead to Peter Merriman. He’s like the Alice Waters of the islands, forging connections between farmers and diners since he started his first restaurant in 1988.

Today Merriman has five restaurants on three islands and his supply chain is pretty well established. But back in the day, he really had to scramble to find the kinds of products he wanted. Remember, Hawaii consumes more Spam than any other place in the United States.

In fact, when Merriman first started looking for good, locally grown produce, he even put a classified ad in the newspaper in hopes of finding farmers who could supply him.

It’s gotten a lot easier since then, and not just because of the growing popularity of such  restaurants.

“Originally we really had to go out and encourage people to grow for us,” he says. “Even into the '90s, we were a kind of a banana republic in Hawaii –- most of the farmland was taken up by sugar cane and a little bit of pineapple grown for export.

“So our timing kind of worked perfectly. The sugar market was going down and that made land available for farmers to come in and grow crops that hadn’t been done before. At the same time, tourism was on the increase, so there was a market that was willing to pay a little more for higher-quality stuff.”

At Merriman’s flagship restaurant on Waimea, he’s even put in a small vegetable and herb garden outside. Not so much for use in the restaurant (though he does love sending bartenders outside to snip herbs for garnish), but to make a statement. The same as the large black-and-white photographs of his favorite suppliers that line the dining room walls, including farmer Erin Lee and rancher Monty Richards.

In fact, Lee grows one of Merriman’s most prized ingredients. While folks from the mainland may be dazzled by the wealth of tropical fruit in Hawaii –- longans, rambutans and mangosteens! –- the prize that eluded Merriman for many years was something we take for granted.

“Vine-ripened tomatoes,” he answers without hesitation when asked about his grail ingredients. “Because it’s so cool here, that’s very hard to do, and there’s a fruit fly that’s a real pest. Erin Lee came in and wanted to sell us basil and mint, but everyone does that. So I told her that what I really wanted was vine-ripened tomatoes.

“One hundred and twenty days later, she showed up with a box of the most beautiful tomatoes. Turns out her farm is at 2,400 feet; that’s too high for the fruit fly, and normally that’s too high for tomatoes to ripen too, but she put them under a cover that kept them warm.”

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Postcard from Hawaii: Tropical fruit at Banana Joe's

A great source of tropical fruit, and a Kauai landmark, is Banana Joe's
I recently spent a week in Hawaii researching a story on agri-tourism for this Sunday's Travel section. As usual, I learned way more than would fit in a single article, so I'm converting the best bits into items for Daily Dish and Travel's Deals & News blog.

For a mainlander, the most amazing thing about Hawaii is the tropical fruit. There are some things we might see occasionally at farmers markets, such as passion fruit, but for the most part it's a whole new world of eating. Hello, jaboticaba.

A great source of tropical fruit, and a Kauai landmark, is Banana Joe'sThe good news is that there seem to be fruit stands all over the islands. Folks will have a tree or two in their backyard and they'll set up a table by the side of the road and sell what they've grown.

A standout example of this, and a Kauai landmark, is Banana Joe's. It's just outside the little town of Kilauea (site of an awesome park). I was driving down the road and all of a sudden spotted a giant banner reading "Rambutan Sale." 

What? Are they crazy? I practically lived on rambutans and longans during my week in Hawaii. If you've never had them, they have roughly similar flavors but very different appearances. The rambutan looks like a rubber toy from the "Star Wars" bar. The longan looks like a quail egg. You tear them open and pop out the centers, which are pale, translucent, very juicy jells with a slightly sweet, extremely floral character. Think of them as juiced-up lychees.

They also had perfectly ripe apple bananas, which have a flavor that shouts what supermarket bananas only whisper.

But the real treasure at Banana Joe's that day (and, ahem, the next ... I drove 20 miles back to buy more), was the mangosteen. Oh, my sweet lord, A great source of tropical fruit, and a Kauai landmark, is Banana Joe'sthe mangosteen. It looks a little like a tiny Indian eggplant, with a dark purple, extremely bitter husk. But the center is the most exquisitely tender tropical fruit you can imagine. It's got a bit more of a sour edge than a rambutan or a longan, and it's got a long, complex, lingering aftertaste. Along with a perfectly ripe peach or tomato, the mangosteen is quite possibly the greatest fruit I have ever tasted.

Banana Joe's also sells fruit-based smoothies and shakes, but come on, really? When there are mangosteens?

5-2719 Kuhio Highway, Kilauea, Hawaii, (808) 828-1092, www.bananajoekauai.com.


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-- Russ Parsons

Upper photos: Banana Joe's. Credit: Kathy Parsons / For The Times

Middle photo: Rambutans. Credit: Kathy Parsons / For The Times

Lower photo: Mangosteens. Credit: Kathy Parsons / For The Times

Far Niente takes a new route

Far Niente is an iconic Napa Valley winery that can’t seem to sit still. Recently, it announced that it would be debuting a new wine – a Pinot Noir, for which it has jumped the Mayacamas Mountains over to the next county. The new wine is called En Route, and it comes from the Russian River Valley.2007_EnRoute_LesPommiers

En Route is the company’s fourth winery: the flagship, Far Niente, was founded in 1982 by Gil Nickel, an Oklahoman who in his home state built the nation’s second-largest family-owned nursery company, before turning to wine in the 1980s. In the Napa Valley, he found an old winery, Far Niente, and resurrected its name and its 19th-century edifice in Oakville. Ten years later, Nickel founded Dolce, a winery devoted to the production of a single dessert wine. Eight years after that, he founded Nickel & Nickel to focus on single vineyard wines. Nickel succumbed to cancer in 2003; his family maintains his legacy, and Dirk Hampson, Far Niente’s longtime winemaker, now manages the estates.

As the flagship, Far Niente has always been known as a craft house, keen on fashioning fruit for an endurable, consistent, lasting house style. They became synonymous with Chardonnay, and their Cabernet – lush, well-structured, lavishly oaked – was an instant Napa classic. Between that and Dolce, the gold standard of Napa stickies, there seemed to be plenty of laurels to rest on. But in the course of producing Napa wines, Nickel got more and more enthralled with single vineyard expression, which led to the formation of Nickel & Nickel, for which a separate winery was built in St. Helena. Nickel & Nickel produces no less than 10 single vineyard wines, some of which venture beyond the Napa Valley, particularly for Syrah and Pinot Noir.

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Getting to the bottom of a glass of Champagne

Champers Let’s say you’re one of those rare wine lovers who can resist the many charms of Champagne long enough to wonder about it; like, what is Champagne, the place, like? What goes into making it? Who goes to the trouble of making it? What are they after? Why does it taste the way it does? And most important, how do they get all those bubbles into the bottle? 

The answer to many of these questions can be found on a fine new website called Champagneguide.net, authored by winewriter Peter Liem. (I must disclose that Liem and I both serve as correspondents for Wine & Spirits Magazine.) Three years ago, Liem decided to move to Champagne, becoming one of the only wine writers writing in English to do so currently. He settled in the village of Dizy, in a small flat nestled among vines and growers. Since then, by his own account, he has been "making a nuisance" of himself in the cellars and salons of the region, interviewing winemakers, tasting wines, taking meticulous notes and drawing very contemplative conclusions about the wines, the villages and the overarching style a given house aims for. The result is one of the more fastidious, comprehensive and useful tools in English you may ever have at your disposal for getting at the mysteries of what is otherwise a very mysterious region.

While still under construction, and under constant revision (of a possible 5,000, there are only about 100 handpicked Champagne houses profiled here, so Liem’s "updates" may never be finished), there is already an impressive amount of information on the site, usefully arranged. In most cases, the history of the domaine is explored, as well as an objective assessment of its desired style, what is found in a typical blend, which villages and vineyards it may come from, and how many vintages of the base wine – the still wine used to create the sparkling wine – you’ll find included in the non-vintage blend.

Extensive, detailed tasting notes of all current wines accompany the profiles – more than 600 in all – and they are routinely thrilling. “Its powerful depth is buttressed by firm acidity,” he writes about Tarlant’s Cuvee Louis Extra Brut, “and an intensely chalky minerality that persists throughout the finish, feeling vivid and almost forceful in its tenacity.” Liem’s notes break down the region’s wines with an effortless precision that just may make your next sip of bubbly something to ponder.

-- Patrick Comiskey

ChampagneGuide.net is available by subscription for $89 a year, about the cost of a fine bottle of vintage Champagne. A sample page can be found here:


Photo credit: Erik Unger / Chicago Tribune


L.A.'s BritWeek kicks off

Brithomer Now through May 8, it's BritWeek, celebrating all things British in Los Angeles. (Who knew Raymond Chandler was a Brit?) Along with an opening gala with Tony Blair in Beverly Hills, events include a citywide pub dart tournament, a UB40 concert at House of Blues and a British astrophysicists lecture at Griffith Observatory. 

If you're looking for Welsh rarebit, black pudding, Battenburg cake, fish and chips, and more U.K. eats, the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills  is offering high tea in the garden and "Rule Britannia" breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.  

Chef Brendan Collins at the Palihouse is offering BritWeek menus too, with choices such as bangers and mash, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, cheese and onion pastie, and treacle tart and sticky toffee pudding. Bonus: This is also a preview of his menu at the coming gastropub at Palihouse Vine.

-- Betty Hallock

Image: Matt Groenig / Fox Broadcasting

Notes from the inbox: New York pizza


After last week's article about New York pizza, others had plenty to say about the topic. Selections from the inbox:

... Anyway the last thing that I'll mention is how sick I am of ordering a SLICE OF CHEESE PIZZA. When I go to a pizza place and say "give me a slice" and they say "of what?" it drives me nuts. If I wanted MUSHROOM, I'd say "give me a slice with mushroom". Default is cheese. It just is. Crazy. -- Matt from Brooklyn

The truth is that WATER MAKES A DIFFERENCE and the owner of La Rocco’s told me that he uses water equivalent to NY water that is provided by a water company in Southern California to make his pizza.  I suggest you eat at La Rocco’s and speak to the owner.  He used to own his own pizza restaurant in NY City for decades before coming to Culver City. -- Carl from Brooklyn

One thing I would add that you might have forgotten. In New York they never cut the pizza into more than 8 slices no matter how big the pizza is. -- Steve

The final acid test for REAL NY PIZZA is its price. Pizza is cheap. Except for in Manhattan where everything is skyhigh priced, a large cheese pie (not delivered) will be no more than 11 bucks. THAT’S the BIG PIE we're talking about here....  New Yorkers and Jersey people would gladly tell Johnny what he can do with a 20 dolla pie, forgetaboutit. -- Harry from New Jersey

Take away? The article was fine, I'm not carping but c'mon, ask a group of Italians if they get pizza to take away and see the response. -- Ken from New York

Among the pizzeria recommendations:

LaRocco's Pizzeria, 3819 Main St., Culver City, (310) 837-8345, www.laroccospizzeria.com.

Hard Times Pizza Co., 2664 Griffith Park Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 661-5656, www.hardtimespizzala.com.

Paisanos Pizza & Pasta, 1132 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach, (310) 376-9883. 

Mulberry Street, 240 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 247-8100; 347 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 247-8998; 17040 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 906-8881, www.mulberrypizza.com.

And a request:

Are there any good pizza places in the west San Fernando valley?

-- Betty Hallock

Photo: Pizzas at Vito's Pizza. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

Malibu Pier: turning back the clock

Beachcomb_2A pair of new restaurants, the Beachcomber Cafe and Malibu Pier Club, fit into a grander scheme — the careful restoration of the historic Malibu Pier. Each had to be built within the footprints and remains of structures that dated back to the pier's early days, when it was a hot spot for film and TV shoots, in addition to celebrity sports fishing. Channel Gidget, hold on to summer, and read more here.

When in Rome... eat gelato

Gelato_2When it's 100 degrees on the Piazza Navona, gelato is better than Bernini. It's coolness in a cup, practically every flavor you ever dreamed of, intense and uncut. Check out Susan Spano's Postcard From Rome in Travel.

And if you can't get to Rome, here's Food staff writer Amy Scattergood's article about the Los Angeles gelateria craze.

Photo credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

Winter, Seattle farmers markets

A recent Saturday in Seattle was cold enough to require hats, gloves and silk long johns, but we decided to go to the U-District outdoor farmers market anyway. In the summertime it’s spilling over with fresh flowers, berries and vegetables. In February, it’s smaller, but still has some terrific vendors selling some very different things than we find in L.A. One stand sells clams and oysters from up the coast. A sturdy woman in a hand-knit sweater offers various cuts of goat meat, but she’s not getting many takers.

The enticing smell of bacon frying wafts around the corner. I follow it to a stand with a sign for “wooly pigs.” A photo shows a rotund animal covered in a curly pelt. “It’s a special breed from Europe called Mangalitsa,” the man behind the counter tells me, “and we raise it just like they do there.”

The bacon is incredibly delicious, but what caught my eye is the sign for leaf lard for $2 a pound. Coming from these pigs, which are sold to top restaurants in Seattle, it’s got to be great. However, it only comes frozen in 10-pound bags. I could just picture myself trying to explain to an overzealous airport security officer why I was hauling 10 pounds of fat onto the plane with me, so I decided, no, not this time. I haven’t given up on the idea though. You can read about wooly pigs at Wooly Pigs founder Jess Thompson's blog.

For more on the farmers market (and Rolling Fire Pizza), see the jump.

-- S. Irene Virbila

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