The new ULU Ocean Grill & Sushi Lounge at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is meeting the locavore rallying cry by offering a grown-up, pared-down elegant cuisine with regional, seasonal and artisanal ingredients. The restaurant’s playful, interactive tableside presentation offers a complement to the thoughtful, innovative ocean-to-table menu.
“The dining scene has changed. It’s no longer about fine dining; it’s about fun dining,” said Executive Chef James Babian. “Also, our customers, who tend to be very well-traveled, are asking for farm-to-table dishes, not only because of the health benefits of eating better food, but because they’re enthralled by the pairings, preparations and ingredient compatibilities. People today are much more interested in understanding where their food comes from than ever before. They also want to be entertained, educated and to interact.”
To meet the demands, the resort’s culinary team came up with creative dining experiences at ULU that they hope diners will find memorable. For instance, every Saturday night, Babian hosts a farm-to-table dinner using ingredients he collects from local farmers markets that morning. The menu is set that day, and the dinner features appetizers, a glass of wine and a four-course meal for $75. It’s held at the restaurant’s Makai Lanai, where customers get to not only watch Babian cook but participate in the preparation of their meals. On Oct. 27, diners grilled their own guava-glazed Keahole lobster over a kiawe fire, Babian said.
Another place of “high energy” is the wine table, where an expert interacts with guests. The extensive wine list, with a special selection of boutique wines, is presented via iPad, complete with tasting notes and ratings to make the selection process more interactive and informative.
Open daily for breakfast and dinner, ULU seats more than 200 guests and features cuisine that’s 75 percent from Hawaii Island. Babian, Executive Sous Chef Nick Mastrascusa and their team work with more than 160 local farmers and fishermen, as well as Adaptations Inc.
Babian said he’s constantly looking to communicate the resort’s needs better and build connections with local food producers. That’s why he’s hosting a symposium and lunch for farmers and fishermen to discuss ideas to make Hawaii Island cuisine more sustainable. It’s a symbiotic relationship, he added.
Each year, after the invite-only symposium, the resort’s wish list of foods grown on the island gets smaller, he said. Products now grown locally for the resort include potatoes, asparagus and black radish. If Babian could only get farmers to grow bell peppers, of which 3,000 pounds are imported a week to the island, he’d be really happy.
“My involvement and these partnerships make a more direct and meaningful impact on the local community and economy, and it also helps in how we personally connect with food,” he said.
Babian says locally sourced ingredients not only taste better, but have more nutrients. And every purchase benefits more than just the fisherman, farmer and their employees. For example, the seafood from the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority has to be delivered to the resort and the delivery driver fills the truck’s tank at a local gas station. Tax revenues on the sale are kept in state, Babian said.
“There’s a ripple effect beyond the food,” he added.
To celebrate sustainable cuisine and the upcoming grand opening of ULU, the resort is offering various events this month. Happening Nov. 15 are a NELHA tour and beachside picnic for $45, as well as a farm-to-table reception and dinner for $75. On Nov. 16, the restaurant is hosting complimentary wine tasting or craft cocktail making and a $95 winemaker dinner. ULU’s grand opening party is Nov. 17, when guests can explore the tastes and flavors via the a la carte menu and complimentary tastings. Before that, there’s a $25 cooking class.
Prices at ULU range from $12 to $59. Signature dishes include: Oven roasted whole fish, lobster wonton soup, tableside ahi poke and lilikoi malasadas. On the menu are eight fish, of which five are wild caught in Hawaii waters and two — the cod and Kona Kampachi — are from NELHA. Ulu also serves a tai snapper raised sustainably in Australia, Babian said. Other proteins include Colorado lamb, Big Island wild boar and Kulana grass-fed beef, he added.
ULU is in the old Pahuia, a AAA four-diamond fine dining restaurant that was known for its food, service and location and had been around since the resort’s inception. Pahuia underwent a six-week renovation to create a stylish, laid-back restaurant with Hawaiian architecture and modern flair. ULU was a two-and-a-half-year-long project, interrupted by the March 2011 tsunami-fueled damages the resort sustained, Babian said.
Designed by EDG Interior Architecture & Design, ULU offers three distinct private dining terraces, a modern sushi lounge, and a 10-seat ocean view bar that serves coffee by baristas in the day and craft cocktails by night.
The restaurant’s name means breadfruit, the staple food Polynesian voyagers brought to Hawaii to sustain life through their journey. It also pays tribute to the area’s breadfruit belt, Babian said. Prior to opening on Oct. 25, a blessing of the restaurant was held, followed by resort employees participating in a hiuwai, or spiritual cleansing, in the ocean fronting ULU. They also ate breadfruit together.
For more information, call 325-8135 or visit fourseasons.com/hualalai.