Patterned after classic Japanese gastropubs, Imanas Tei serves reliably superb izakaya fare like this spicy tuna handroll. // © 2017 Imanas Tei
Feature image (above): Maui chef Nutcharee Case channels her Thai roots while working with super-fresh ingredients at Nutcharee’s Authentic Thai Food. // © 2017 Nutcharee Case
Visitors often pore over reviews of Hawaii restaurants, but their most reliable sources might just be Hawaii chefs themselves. So, we asked four local chefs to dish on their personal go-to eateries in the islands. When it’s time for them to leave their own kitchens, they head to the following spots for satisfying meals.
Imanas Tei, Oahu (Recommended by Chef Ed Kenney of Mahina & Sun’s)
For 18 years, Kenney has been frequenting Imanas Tei, a neighborhood haunt just a 10-minute drive from Waikiki. Imanas Tei specializes in classic izakaya food, with traditional fare such as nitsuke, sushi, sashimi and tempura. Kenney’s favorites include ume-shiso roll, fried gobo and nabemono (a type of Japanese hot pot).
“Casey-San, the proprietor, and Takako, a server who has been there since the beginning, are always so welcoming and exude aloha,” Kenney said. “The decor is comfortable, and the relaxed atmosphere is conducive to enjoying the people who you’re with. I’d recommend this to visitors because it’s established and authentic. It’s not the latest new thing. For me, it’s like blue jeans and a T-shirt: It doesn’t require a second thought.”
Nutcharee’s Authentic Thai Food, Maui (Recommended by Executive Chef Isaac Bancaco of Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort)
At this Kihei restaurant, chef/owner Nutcharee Case imbues age-old Thai flavors and techniques with Maui overtones.
“Nutcharee’s food is fresh, clean and balanced,” Bancaco said. “She makes her own spice blends, and her ratios of spices are perfect, allowing each nuance to come through on your palate. She creates some of the most aromatic Thai curries you’ll taste.”
Bancaco gives two thumbs up to the crispy opakapaka with green mango.
With its simple design, the dining room is set close enough to the kitchen door to whet patrons’ appetites with whiffs of toasted peanuts, fried fish and stewing sauces.
“Locals and visitors alike think this restaurant is great,” Bancaco said. “Nutcharee is one of the hardest-working chefs out there.”
Red Water Cafe, Hawaii Island (Recommended by Chef Rio Miceli of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel)
Located in upcountry Waimea, Red Water Cafe’s historic building reflects the town’s paniolo (cowboy) mood while the interior decor emits a modern vibe. Its executive chef, Dave Abrahams, earned his stripes at the popular Merriman’s restaurant and Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii.
“Dave focuses on ingredients from small, area farms and seafood that comes straight to the restaurant from local fishermen,” Miceli said. “His dishes are unpretentious and locavore-oriented.”
Standout entrees include Big Island seared ahi with Waimea beets as well as a variety of super-fresh sashimi and specialty rolls.
“I like to put myself in the hands of the chef, and the daily fish or sushi special has never let me down,” Miceli said. “Dave and his staff pour their heart and soul into their creations.”
Tchin Tchin, Oahu (Recommended by Chef George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro)
A narrow staircase in Honolulu’s Chinatown leads from the street to The Tchin Tchin! Bar, a loft-style spot that draws a mix of downtown office workers and diehard foodies.
“I like the openness of the space,” Mavrothalassitis said. “There are a lot of design details that show that somebody cares about this business.”
Since it’s a Mediterranean tapas bar with small dishes for sharing, Mavrothalassitis usually starts with the charcuterie plate, followed by octopus salad and lobster, all of which he says are seasoned flawlessly.
“The food and wine are exceptional, and there is a choice of seating: a long bar, some outside tables for larger groups and, my favorite, the leather chairs and sofa at the top of the stairs,” Mavrothalassitis said.