On our last visit to Hawaii, we dined at Merriman’s for one of the best meals we’ve ever had. So, when TripAdvisor released their Travelers’ Choice Awards, I was not too surprised to see it rank #10. (Along with another favorite of ours, Victoria & Albert’s in Walt Disney World, which ranked #2.) In this post, we’ll take a look at our Merriman’s experience, and also on these TripAdvisor Awards.
Merriman’s Hawaii is the creation of Chef Peter Merriman, who is one of the pioneers of the regional cuisine movement. Merriman’s has three flagship restaurants serving locally-sourced, farm to table fare: on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai. In addition to this, Chef Merriman also has two fast-casual restaurants: Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman on Maui and Oahu, and Moku Kitchen on Oahu.
We almost didn’t dine at Merriman’s. Despite seeing absolutely stellar reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, I couldn’t find much about it elsewhere. In hindsight, I’m really thankful that we decided to give it a chance, as even though it was pricey, the multi-course meal we had was not only delicious, but also not a terrible value given the quality…
As much as this is a post about Merriman’s, it’s also a rant about the general quality (or lack thereof) about restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor. (So, if you don’t care about that, skip down to the photos.)
Generally, I’m distrustful of TripAdvisor. I think it can be a worthwhile jumping off point for finding a place to eat or stay in an unfamiliar area, but I don’t put much stock in it beyond that. People are fickle, and I’ve seen too many reviews on crowd-sourced sites like TripAdvisor that are “questionable” to put it charitably.
Moreover, even when an individual review there seems superficially valid, there’s always the possibility the person writing it has poor taste. At least with professional critics and even food bloggers, the cream rises to the top. Critics become popular as they earn credibility, and the same happens with food bloggers as they build a body of work and gain a following (or don’t).
Meanwhile, TripAdvisor takes an egalitarian approach. It gives equal weight to someone who elucidates quite clearly as to the highs and lows of the experience, and someone who RANTS IN ALL CAPS ABOUT THE AVAILABILITY OF STREET PARKING NEARBY.
As much as I value differing perspectives, I do not believe all opinions are of equal quality. Just as with questions, there are stupid opinions. In summation, that is my problem with TripAdvisor, Yelp, and sites like them. Give me Eater or the Infatuation over TripAdvisor or Yelp any day of the week.
Given this diatribe about TripAdvisor, it might seem odd that I’m writing this post as a result of them ranking Merriman’s so highly. This is not so much due to TripAdvisor’s praise as it is a reminder that I planned on writing this (as with many things from our trip to Hawaii about which I’ve forgotten to write).
Anyway, that’s enough ranting, now let’s take an actual look at the cuisine at Merriman’s:
For our meal, we had a party of 4, meaning that we “qualified” for the tasting menu, which was $80/person at the time of our meal. Regular entrees at Merriman’s are priced in the $40-60 range (some more, some less), meaning you’re looking at around $100/person once you factor in appetizers, desserts, and drinks. It’s difficult to call that amount of money a good value, but for a restaurant of this caliber, I think it’s exactly that.
Here’s what was on our tasting menu: Waimea Fresh Farm Cucumber & Lobster, Peter’s Original Caesar Salad, Kaua’i Shrimp Korean Style with Spicy Ginger Soy, Ahi Ginger Poke, House-Made Cavatelli Pasta, Avocado & Vine Ripened Tomato, Wok Charred Ahi, Macadamia Nut Crusted Kampachi, Hawaiian Butcher’s Cut of Filet, Grilled-House-Made Chimichurri, Jalapeño Whipped Potatoes, Chocolate Oblivion Torte, and Pineapple Bread Pudding with Toasted Macadamia Nuts.
I’m not going to go through each item and review them individually, but almost everything we had was spectacular. Every vegetable tasted as if it were picked that day at the height of its ripeness, and the meats were all excellent cuts. Almost every dish was fresh and light (those would be the words I’d keep coming back to), with some clever twists on familiar favorites.
If anything, my only criticism–and even this is not so much criticism as what would keep it from being the best of the best–is that it was not all that envelope-pushing in terms of flavor profiles or inventiveness. These dishes were expertly-prepared versions of many familiar favorites. Nothing caused me to stop and say, “I’ve never had anything like this before.”
To be sure, I would not penalize Merriman’s for this. Our meal was superlative, and induced many wows and other positive reactions with each course. Again, this is one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Over the course of all those courses, there wasn’t a single misstep–everything was great. My suspicion, though, is that a top 10 restaurant in the United States would achieve not just that, but the culinary equivalent of reinventing the wheel or at least redefining its genre.
Ultimately, I don’t have nearly enough experience with the haute cuisine of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, etc. to declare Merriman’s one of the top 10 restaurants in the United States. While it’s one of the best meals we’ve ever had, we also tend to focus on mid-tier restaurants that offer great and inventive dishes–but also good value–when choosing places to eat. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether this is the #10 or #110 restaurant in the United States. Given how many great restaurants there are in the United States, it’s hard to imagine having a bad meal at any top 1,000 location.
If you’re planning a visit to the Big Island or Oahu, please check out my other posts about Hawaii for ideas of things to do. There are a ton of incredible, under-the-radar experiences in Hawaii, and I highly recommend Hawaii The Big Island Revealed Guide. It’s written by a Hawaii resident, and is far better than other books we’ve read.
What’s the best restaurant at which you’ve ever dined? Have you ever dined at one of the Merriman’s restaurants in Hawaii? What did you think of the experience? Any thoughts or a review of your own to add? Please feel free to ask any questions you might have or share additional thoughts in the comments!