Anyone who places a large sign in his restaurant with the following quote is a hero of mine:
“My heroes have always been farmers.” – Peter Merman
That’s exactly what you’ll find at the Merriman’s in Waimea on the Big Island. Restaurateur and Hawaii regional cuisine expert Peter Merriman’s establishments are well known and loved and for good reason. Merriman is known as the original locavore and for more than 25 years he has been a champion for local farmers, fisherman and ranchers on the Hawaiian Islands.
My respect for farmers is immense. In the Midwest, we suffered from severe droughts in 2012 and 2013. This spring, we are dealing with the wettest year since 1871 with three to five inches of rain predicted for today alone and the threat of severe flooding. Today, we may break a 60-year record for rainfall in a 24-hour period. Farmers are always dealing with conditions completely beyond their control. And yet, they go on.
Which brings me back to Peter Merriman and the concept of Hawaii regional cuisine. Interestingly, I recently learned that Merriman got his start at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, a place of which I am extremely fond of and have raved about in earlier posts. The story goes that Merriman arrived from the mainland with one suitcase, plans to stay for a short time and so he took a job at the Mauna Lani as a cook. Two years later, he was named executive chef and the rest is history.
In 1988, Merriman’s opened up as his signature restaurant in Waimea. Waimea is a charming, upcountry town on the Big Island. The overwhelmingly positive and well deserved reviews came flowing in soon after Merriman’s opened from the New York Times, San Francisco magazine and on and on and on. He was one of the chefs who put Hawaii on the map as a foodie destination. Over the years, he expanded to other islands, including two additional locations for Merriman’s Kapalua on Maui and Merriman’s Fishhouse in Poipu on Kauai. In 2014, he opened a new venture called Monkeypod Kitchen, with locations on Maui and Oahu, which I previously wrote about here.
This past March we visited the original Merriman’s in Waimea for lunch on a Friday and it was as wonderful as ever. The minute we were seated our waitress told us that we were in luck as they have live music on Fridays. It got even better from there: One of the waitresses graced the dining room with a hula to accompany the music—a true Hawaiian dining experience.
Looking out the window from our table, you could see the kitchen garden. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. We were amused by a father and his elementary school-aged daughter seated at the table next to us. She asked to be excused for a minute and stepped outside for a quick walk through the garden. We saw her sneak a leaf of lettuce for an appetizer. If that isn’t a sign that the produce is fresh and tastes like all produce should, then I don’t know what is. She also ordered a salad for her lunch—exactly how a child’s taste buds should be.
The website description of the menu explains it all: “The menu at the original Merriman’s in Waimea starts on the farm, reflecting Hawaii’s rich flavors that are alive with freshness. Drawing inspiration from the surrounding green pastures, cattle ranches and fields, Merriman’s Waimea is the true Home of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Featuring a menu of grass fed cattle, fish caught off the Kohala Coast and farm fresh produce from neighboring Nakano and Hirabara Farms, each quality ingredient used at Merriman’s celebrates Hawaii’s rich bounty of flavors, harvested at the peak of perfection. A truly Hawaii Regional menu, experience signature dishes that originated right here such as Merriman’s Classic Wok Charred Ahi and Kahua Ranch Naturally Raised Lamb.”
If in doubt, order the wok charred ahi. But, be sure to start with one of his signature salads. It doesn’t get fresher. To add to the appeal, he also offers a wonderful wine list. Merriman’s is consistently, as the Hawaiians would say, “ono.”