Heels & Picks: Monkey business with Merriman
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
“There’s no business like monkey business,” or so the saying goes. Or is it show business?
Either way, there’s no denying everybody likes to monkey around sometimes. Right?
One of the best places on Oahu and Maui to enjoy delicious dishes made with fresh local ingredients, up-and-coming local musicians and handcrafted cocktails is Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman.
Monkeypod Kitchen is where foodies and families collide. Created by Chef Peter Merriman and restaurateur Bill Terry, the brand’s concept is locally-sourced food and specialty cocktails that are more accessible to local and visiting families. They also have an awesome, Coachella-style playlist of indie-rock playing on the overhead speakers — something this rocker girl loves. But that’s another story.
Merriman’s name is familiar both locally and abroad; visitors from around the world have enjoyed his namesake restaurant Merriman’s on the Big Island, two restaurants on Kauai and one on the west side of Maui. The property on Maui is stunning; Merriman’s Kapalua is perched on the coast with sweeping ocean view. If you haven’t been yet, you need to go.
Merriman has long been associated with the championing of local ingredients in Hawaii and remains on the forefront of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. He and the 12 other chefs attributed with creating this regional style of cooking were inducted into the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame in 2011. It’s no surprise this group of chefs has influenced local cuisine in a grassroots way, encouraging local farmers to plant lettuce and tomatoes and raise cattle that the chefs in turn would buy for their restaurants. Pretty cool.
Monkeypod’s concept is more relaxed than the bulk of the Merriman’s restaurants. The idea is a more casual atmosphere with top-notch food and drinks. At the Maui location, surfboards hang over the bar in a neat line, thick nautical rope serves as a decorative touch and the brightly multicolored Monkeypod artwork takes up broad expanses of wall. Located in Wailea, on any given night at Monkeypod Maui you will find elegantly dressed ladies in party dresses and families in slippas and surf shorts. Somehow, it all works.
On Oahu, Monkeypod’s Ko Olina location opened in December 2012. The first time I walked in, I felt the familiarity wash over me; the decor was similar to that of Wailea and I’ve spent many fantastic evenings at Monkeypod Maui with friends, family, bandmates and loved ones.
One of the most prominent differences between Maui and Oahu Monkeypod locations is the size — Ko Olina offers an entire second floor to accommodate guests.
I had a chance to sit down with Monkeypod Ko Olina beverage manager Brad Miller after a singing engagement there on Friday (music is offered daily at 3:30 and 7 p.m. daily, with an additional lunch performance at noon Fridays through Sundays). I have performed at Monkeypod since their doors opened on Maui; these days I perform at noon Fridays at the Ko Olina restaurant.
“Our drink list was put together by Jason Vendrell over on Maui,” Miller said. “He’s a sommelier and hand selects all of our wines. There’s not a cocktail on our list that we’re not proud to make, and we’re doing things locally, but not necessarily cliché.”
So what does it mean to source locally but not fall into the normal expectations of a cocktail in Hawaii? It means forgoing mango and pineapple in favor of local strawberries and basil, and creating housemade syrups from cardamom and lemongrass for handcrafted cocktails.
Miller was quick to praise the kitchen staff for supplying backup to bar staff when it comes to creating the syrups. The sheer volume of syrups Monkeypod goes through in a week demands the staff work together to maintain the quality of product.
“For the millions of people who are coming to visit Hawaii every year, they should be able to get fresh, quality product,” Miller said. “What’s most exciting is what our success could mean. We make our strawberry puree for Lava Flows from local strawberries. The idea that a restaurant of this volume could make locally sourced fresh syrups and purees is proving that it can be done.”
A few of Monkeypod’s signature drinks are the Monkeypod Mai Tai, a fresh blend of rums and juice topped with their signature lilikoi foam. The blueberry rum used in the Blueberry Mojito is housemade; the rum is infused with blueberries for a week and then strained for the cocktail.
The vanilla pods used for the kitchen’s signature pies get a second life as well; they are placed in containers to create housemade vanilla-infused rum for a cocktail on the brunch menu. The No Ka Oi is made from Ocean Vodka, and every ingredient used in the cocktail can be found on Maui.
One of the other unique things about Monkeypod is their commitment to steering clear of beers and spirits typically found behind the bar in favor of local breweries and distilleries whenever possible. When a customer asks for their usual beer brand, staff will lead them in the direction of a local beer which may suit their palette just as well. Of note, their two top-selling cocktails feature spirits produced in Hawaii.
“One of the things that happened with food in this country over the last 50 years is that people became so enamored with what they could do, in the name of convenience, they forgot about what they should do,” said Miller. “That’s a big part of what motivates us.”
If fresh cocktails made from local ingredients are enough to motivate your epicurial curiosity for a trip to Ko Olina, the food ought to seal the deal. My favorites are the Ahi Tuna Melt sandwich, the Raw Bar (ahi and tako poke with shrimp ceviche) and the specialty watermelon pizza they carry from time to time.
And really, you can’t go wrong with an establishment that is dedicated to “the art of merrymaking with Aloha” and “laughing everyday.”
Now go get into some monkey business!
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.