Last updated on December 10th, 2023 at 10:33 pm
My very first standalone dining experience with Na’au Hilo was in September 2022. But eight months later, the stars aligned, and they had another dinner during my impromptu hop over to the island. So, in May 2023, I had a Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner. And it was fantastic!
As you all know, I love Na’au Hilo. Their mission of preserving Hawaii’s food culture using ingredients, farmed, foraged, fished, and hunted in the islands creates a dining experience like no other. You’ll taste things with Na’au that you won’t get to anywhere else. Plus, Chef/Owner Brian Hirata and his business partner Gem Nishimura are among the nicest people I know, and are also friends with some of my other favorite restauranteurs, Kevin and Justine Lee of PAI Honolulu.
Of course, none of these things would mean anything if the food wasn’t good. But as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I think the food at Na’au is excellent, which is why I’ve dined with them as much as I have and why I decided to go for a Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner not long after my last experience with them.
Booking My Na’au Hilo Round 2 Dinner
As has been the case for a while now, you book your Na’au Hilo dining experience via Tock. However, it’s worth noting that different dates feature dinners with seven or nine courses. So, hopefully, the dinner length you want coincides with your travel dates. Though, I’d say that a dinner with Na’au Hilo is worth planning your trip around.
Na’au Hilo Round 2 Dinner Location
Chef Brian and Gem are still looking for a brick-and-mortar location to call home. So, for the time being, Na’au Hilo still operates as a pop-up, with most of their dinners taking place at the Whitehaven Farm in Pepe’ekeo – a roughly 20-minute drive from Hilo.
As you’ll recall from my last visit, getting there can be difficult. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for you to save the driving instructions in your confirmation email and follow them. DO NOT rely on Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, etc. If you do, you will get lost and end up in the wrong place. The smarter thing to do, if you’re able to, is spend a night or two at Whitehaven Farm.
Our Dining Experience
Since we knew how to get to Whitehaven Farm this time around, we had a much more leisurely arrival experience for our Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner. In fact, we were the first guests to arrive, meaning we could snag a parking spot right in front. After parking, we walked around the side of the building, where Na’au’s friendly staff greeted us and guided us to our seats. Note: please don’t take the gorgeous coasters at the conclusion of your meal.
If you can read the above menu, some of the dishes may sound similar to those that I’ve written about in the past. And, yes, one of them is the same but plated differently, while the other is a reinterpretation of a past dish. With that said, let’s get into the specific dishes.
Kaua’i Ama Ebi
The first dish of our Na’au Hilo round 2 dining experience is a reinterpretation of something we had before. Previously, this was strictly a shrimp tenpura item inspired by the shrimp tenpura Chef’s grandmother used to make for him. This time, though, the tenpura is joined by an Ama Ebi Spicy Poke.
The tenpura, which featured the crispy fried head this time, was just as tasty as the last one we enjoyed. However, the addition of calamansi, along with the oroshi, was a really nice touch. Of course, the shrimp itself was perfectly cooked and full of flavor, while the batter was very light. The addition of O’io adds bit more meatiness to the shrimp.
The poke, inspired by spicy ahi poke, combines gochujang with mayonnaise to create a creamy, lightly spicy sauce. It pairs well with the sweet, sweet shrimp meat, and is enhanced by the addition of green onion, nori, and bubu arare.
The second course during our Na’au Dinner round 2 is what I’m going to call a Na’au classic. This dish has been with Na’au from the start and is one I’ve enjoyed several iterations of now. That’s not a complaint, by the way. It’s a good dish, and I get why it’s usually on the menu – to give you a taste of Hawaii’s native rainforests.
In this iteration, Chef pairs the wild ferns – Ho’i’o and Hapu’u with Pepeiao – with a Maui onion vinaigrette. It’s a tasty dish that has a beautifully clean flavor profile to it. So refreshing! Of course, the presentation really drove home the origin of the dish and took things to the next level.
While we were enjoying the Wild Ferns, Chef came around with plates of Gindai (oblique-banded snapper) wings. This wasn’t on the menu, but it was a little snack Chef made using trimmings from the next dish. As you can see, these are the collars of Gindai, lightly dusted in flour, salt, and pepper and fried crispy. The little fish bites had a gorgeous, lightly crispy exterior with a succulent, flakey interior. So good. It also really took me back to when I used to go Aholehole fishing and fry up our catch in a similar fashion for dinner.
The official third course of our Na’au Hilo round 2 is listed on the menu as “Gindai,” and the only description is another fish, Akule. As it turns out this is actually a gorgeous filet of Gindai with crispy skin atop a congee/jook made with Akule dashi, and a trio of dried seafood that are popular snacks in Hawaii – shrimp, scallop, and cuttlefish. A mildly spicy ginger-scallion relish really helped to tie things together.
Savory rice porridge is one of my favorite things ever. When made well like this, rice porridge is a flavorful, umami-packed, warm hug.
Next up during our Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner was a dish called “Local Pork.” The description of mung bean and quail egg confounded me. What we got was an unctuous cut of pork belly. Crispy on the outside, melty on the inside, and perfectly seasoned, the luxuriousness of the pork was enhanced by the sunnyside-up quail egg. Creamy yet toothsome mung beans, with crispy garlic chips and shallot strips, along with a dusting of herbaceous malunggay (moringa) powder, helped to balance the richness of the meat and egg. So good!
The description of this dish, the fifth of our Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner, listed three mushrooms – Hamakua Ali’i, Keiki Portabella, and Shiitake. What landed looked like a standard dish of sauteed mushrooms in butter sauce with bread and butter. And in a way, it was. These gloriously caramelized, meaty mushrooms came in a perfectly seasoned butter sauce spiked with thyme. However, the butter was a deep, rich, umami butter made with mushroom powder. The locally made sourdough provided just the right amount of acid to help balance all of the richness and really tie everything together. I was certainly surprised in a good way!
The final savory dish of our Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner was a Local Lamb with Ulu. As you all know, I have a red meat allergy, so I couldn’t partake in this lovely piece of meat, which came dressed in an herb-spiked red wine sauce, but Mrs. Island Miler enjoyed it quite a bit. And she doesn’t like lamb!
My alternate was the same dish but made with tako (octopus instead. It was superb! While I was sad I couldn’t try the lamb, I was very happy with this soft, meaty tako atop potato-like ulu (breadfruit) and snappy green beans. It was a great alternative, in my opinion, and more imaginative than the meat alternative I got at the fantastic Aubergine Carmel.
All that said, I should note that Na’au’s standard policy is not to accommodate dietary restrictions or preferences. Remember, they’re a pop-up, which is already a difficult business model. Having to make accommodations will only make it harder for them to operate.
Dessert during our Na’au Hilo round 2 dinner was Mrs. Island Miler’s dream come true – Poha Berry. Here, it was Poha Berry ice cream, Poha Berry compote, and a Poha Berry cake. I gotta say, as much as I love Chef Brian’s Ohelo Cheesecake, this dessert was fantastic! It had an assertive Poha Berry flavor, and that creamy ice cream pair very well with the light cake. It felt light and refreshing, yet decadent all at once.
I must say, though. While I’m glad I tried this and love it, I do really want to try Chef Brian’s Honoka’a Chocolate tart, or even that apple pie (yes, using local apples) he made once.
Na’au Hilo Round 2, Final Thoughts
Every dinner I’ve ever had with Chef Brian and his crew have been exceptional. If you’ve never dined with them, or didn’t grow up with a family that forages or fishes a lot, I guarantee you that you’ll experience something you never have before. Surprisingly, this has been the case for me every single time I’ve dined with them. So if you’re ever on the Big Island over the weekend, I encourage you to check them out.