Tapas @ Kukui’ula – Rare Dining Experience

Tapas @ Kukui’ula is the re-creation of the former Jossellin’s Tapas. New name, new chef and a fine-tuning of their menu has created a restaurant not to be missed if you are in the Poipu area. Chef Kristin Yanagawa has reimagined some of the previous menu items and added new dishes of her own.

Tapas @ Kukui'ula Chef Kristin Yanagawa

Located on the upper level of The Shops at Kukui’ula in Koloa, Kauai, when arriving you are greeted by a hostess on the ground floor. Up a flight of stairs is the welcoming staff and casual ambience of the restaurant.

Tapas @ Kukui'ula Interior

There are many choices on their extensive menu where dishes are listed under three categories; Aina (from the land), Kai (from the sea) and Sides. The drink menu is on the other side, and there is a separate dessert menu.

I started with a choice from the sea, Crispy Calamari served with Roasted Pineapple Sauce and Crispy Garlic.

Crispy Calamari with Roasted Pineapple Sauce Tapas @ Kukui'ula

The arrival of my calamari was the first hint of the treats in store for me this night. The dish, and each dish to come, was a work of art. This was undoubtedly the best calamari that I have eaten, lightly battered and crispy, with a perfect addition of savory and sweet from the garlic and the pineapple sauce.

While I was savoring my calamari Chef Yanagawa came to my table to introduce herself. She knew that I was there to review the restaurant and asked if I would mind if she had the waiter bring out a selection of dishes to allow me to sample a variety of different flavors from their menu. I agreed and my culinary tour began.

It was an adventure to wait with anticipation not knowing what would be my next dish. First to arrive was Hawaiian Style Ahi Poke Nachos.

Hawaiian Style Ahi Poke Nachos

Maui sweet onion, soy, sesame, sweet potato gaufrette and wonton chips, were mixed with Ahi Poke and drizzled with Kabayaki and Wasabi aioli. Although I was trying to save room for the next offering from Chef Yanagawa I found myself reaching again and again for one more bite of this unique combination of flavors.

If it was difficult to resist eating the nachos, it was impossible to resist what came next, Tapas Corn Beef Hashubi.

Corn Beef Hashubi

Delectable little rectangles of house-made corn beef hash with rice, nori, and Kabayaki and Dijon mustard aioli were presented with the consistent attention to detail.

Tapas @ Kukui'ula Open Kitchen

Tapas @ Kukui’ula Open Kitchen

I want to mention here that throughout the meal the service was attentive. Each dish is served tapas style, meant to be shared, with a plate for each diner to place their serving. Whenever the diner’s plate had traces of previous dishes it would be whisked away with a clean plate and utensils provided for the next dish.

Place setting at Tapas @ Kukui'ula

After my Corn Beef Hashubi I really felt I could not eat another bite when the chef appeared with Roasted Kalbi Short Ribs.

Kiawe Roasted Kalbi Short Ribs

There should be three servings in the above photos but I ate one before I realized I had not taken a photo! The short ribs with a Kim Chee chili glaze are served over farmers’ beet risotto. As I was tasting the ribs I could not help but wonder how there could be so much depth of flavor in such a simple looking dish.

When I enquired about how the ribs were cooked, it was clear how much thought and preparation goes into each dish at Tapas @ Kukui’ula. The ribs are marinated for two days in a teriyaki sauce and then sous vide for 48 hours before being roasted in the oven with the Kim Chee chili glaze.

Full and with much food left to be wrapped up to take home with me, I declined the waiter’s offer of a look at the dessert menu. I had already stood up from the table when the waiter reappeared to say that the chef really wanted me to taste the Pineapple Guri Guri even if I only had enough room for a few bites.

Pineapple Guri Guri - Tapas @ Kukui'ula

Well, I practically licked the dish clean. Chef Yanagawa came out when I had finished and told me that she had tried a few different iterations of this dish before she felt it was just right.

One of the steps that makes their Guri Guri (a sherbet like frozen dessert) special is that they shave it by hand into your dish just before serving. She also asked me to please return as her guest the following week because she felt that I had not tasted enough of the items from the Kai (from the ocean) side of the menu. I gladly agreed to return and so, part two.

I arrived the following week ready for another night of scrumptious food and was not disappointed.

Before my first dish arrived the chef came to my table to ask that I have my camera ready as I would only have a minute to capture the special presentation of Kauai Shrimp Tempura Dynamite.

Kauai Shrimp Tempura Dynamite - Tapas @ Kukui'ula
Kauai Shrimp Tempura Dynamite - Tapas @ Kukui'ula 2

The flavor profile was as spectacular as the presentation. The ingredients seemed simple, but the preparation turned them into something special. Visually, I could barely detect the tempura coating on the shrimp. However, there was this slight crunch with every bite before the firm, perfectly cooked flesh of the shrimp. The listed ingredients on the menu are shrimp, sushi rice, cucumber and avocado.

Next up was Slow Cooked Miso Butterfish prepared with a soy mirin reduction and warabi salad.

Slow Cooked Miso Butterfish

I enjoyed this dish but was distracted by the surprise of the astounding taste of Roasted Assorted Cauliflower served with a “61” egg, miso brown butter vinaigrette, Punalu’u sweet bread, basil turmeric and goat cheese aioli.

Roasted Mixed Cauliflower

I do not know how so much delectableness can be infused into a simple vegetable (apologies for the blurry photo). But then, my server explained that the perfection of this dish was the result of three weeks and multiple tweaks by Chef Yanagawa until she was satisfied with the result.

Once again the chef convinced me that I could not leave without trying Tapas @ Kukui’ula’s special take on Molten Dark Chocolate Cake.

Molten Dark Chocolate Cake

Their cake, served with Tahition Vanilla Gelato and a chocolate dipped strawberry, has a molten white chocolate center. The perfect accompaniment was a pot of the restaurant’s French press tea.

French Press Tea

I did not begin to taste the many selections on the food menu, nor did I try any of the multiple sangrias, cocktails, craft beers, wines and premium sakes offered on their drink menu.

I cannot imagine being on the south shore of Kauai and not eating at this special restaurant again. The atmosphere would be conducive to a romantic dinner out. However, if possible, I would bring a group of four to six people to allow you to taste multiple dishes.

Here are my top recommendations – Kauai Shrimp Tempura Dynamite, Tapas Corn Beef Hashubi and Roasted Mixed Cauliflower with Pineapple Guri Guri for dessert.

Tapas @ Kukui'ula - Chef Kristin Yanagawa

If you are feeling adventurous I would ask the waiter if you could set a maximum budget and have the chef choose a selection of dishes for you. I expect Chef Kristin Yanagawa to be a major influence in Hawaiian cuisine for many years.

Kathy Stafford
Kathy Stafford

Kathy Stafford is a writer, publisher and editor. She was a contributing author to "Sasha Cohen Fire on Ice". She has been a contributing editor to several publications including, "Discover Balboa Park: A Complete Guide". Kathy was publisher and editor of "Skating Sketches", reporting on figure skating worldwide, for over ten years. She was a credentialed journalist as a figure skating specialist for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She has covered international skating events in Switzerland, France, Finland, England, Canada and the United States with published articles in Canada, Japan, and the United States. Although she never accepted an assignment, she was on the list of approved Lonely Planet authors for three years. She is currently combining her love of travel, and her background as a writer and editor, as a publisher and author of travel related journalism. In addition, she blogs about her search for her family roots at www.cherokeerootsblog.com.

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