Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Secret Garden

Hawaiian food is always about family, about ohana.    It has always been about a good family meal.   Therefore almost all Hawaiian restaurants are really geared more for taking food home to eat with your family, or taking food out to have a picnic by the sea.   But this creates a little problem.  Since Hawaiian restaurants are really geared more for a casual family dinner, there aren't that many restaurants that present Hawaiian food in a really nice upscale, dress up, type environment.   And there have been many occassions where I wanted to take my guest for a more exclusive, fine dining, experience, yet still treat them to Hawaiian food.   This is true of special occassions, like birthdays or graduations.   It's true of taking a client or a date out to a more elegant atmosphere.   It's especially true of when wanting to entertain out of town, VIP guests.   For all of these occasions, I have really only ever found one restaurant that fits the bill.   It is that beautiful little oasis, hidden away in Moiliili, the Willows.

The Willows was, in my dad's day, THE exclusive restaurant to take people to.    It was originally built on top of a natural spring.  Apparently, during my Goong Goong's time, all of Moiliili was filled with natural springs, and the young boys would swim in them and crawl through the connecting tunnels.   By my dad's time, the one at Willows was one of the only ones left.   As more and more construction was done in the Moiliili area, that spring dried up as well.   So when Willows was renovated, they preserved the original image by creating an artificial spring and pond.   Probably the coolest table at the Willows is the one in the outrigger canoe that sits on the edge of the pond.  

Named for the willow trees, that are still growing over the wall of the restaurant, the grounds are kept as a lush tropical garden.   It is one of the most magnificently kept gardens in the whole state.   From the minute you walk in, you're treated to a visual feast of fauna growing on rock walls, hanging from trees, and everywhere you look.   As you walk further in, you even cross a small arched bridge over a little stream.  

Blue Ginger at the Willows
At the entrance to the restaurant, there is a small art gallery.   The gallery was really significant to me, because for quite some time it was operated by and featured my classmate (well he was an upperclassman), Kelly Sueda.   The first time I strolled into the gallery, I did a doubletake, because in high school, Kelly was more of a thesbian than a painter.   But I guess sometime in college he switched media and has been pretty prolific ever since.

Jumping Water Fountain at the Willows
As you walk in further, there is fountain in the middle of their courtyard that features jumping water.   It's a great little place for the kids to run through afterwards and try to play with (or avoid) the leaping streams of water.   A little further in from that, they've even got a chapel for couples who want to get married and hold a reception there afterwards.

The best thing about the Willows, is that they've got a really great Hawaiian food buffet, that's taken Hawaiian food and dressed it up for a more elegant setting.   So you've still different types of poke, and kalua pig, and lau laus, and chicken long rice, and poi.  But the poi is served in neat little cups, and there are separate cups for your long rice, and the ti leaf is easily removed from your lau lau with the serving tongs, and discarded right at the buffet line.   They've taken all of the familiar flavors and dressed them up nicely. If you come on certain days, the Willows even features a trio of strolling Hawaiian muscians (ukulele, guitar, and cello).  Real, melodic, Hawaiian music, like we used to sing on the porch in Hawaiiana, or at May Day, to accompany your Hawaiian food.   It's the perfect way to show off our authentic culture to malahini from the mainland.

Farewell Brunch at the Willows
I've taken countless friends from the mainland to visit the Willows.   For some, it is their first trip to Hawaii and their first taste of our real culture.   It is the Hawaii of their dreams, and yet absolutely nothing like the faux-Hawaii of the the tiki bars and hula huts.    For others, who have come home after many years being transplanted on the mainland, it is the Hawaii of their childhood memories, yet made even more beautiful when served on fine china rather than those 5-sectioned chinet paper plates they had as kids  (although I do have a certain fondness for those old brown Hawaiian print little square dishes you can't find anywhere else).
We've had many company Christmas parties at the Willows.  But the most important function I ever had at the Willows was my eldest son's 1st birthday party.  Having a lot of senior guests, a few children, several out of town visitors, needing someplace that was comfortable, elegant, and still Hawaiian, there was really only one place that we could go.

I've been trying to figure out where to hold my second son's 1st birthday party.   Given the same criteria though, the list of contenders is really short. 

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