LANAI CITY, Hawaii -- The concept of local ingredients is given an unusual twist at the Dining Room, the top-end restaurant of the Four Seasons' Lodge at Koele on Lanai.
After enjoying an entree of macadamia-crusted venison loin, I learned later from hotel publicist Brad Packer that the meat comes from axis deer, introduced to Hawaii in the 1860s and hunted on this island today. That might account for the skittishness of the lone deer I surprised while bouncing along a four-wheel-drive road in the northwest wilds of the island; it bolted without a moment's hesitation.
The one that didn't get away surrendered three tender discs of loin that were roasted to medium rare and served with a parsnip puree studded with tiny brussels sprouts.
The other entree at our table also had a local link. Keahole lobsters, Packer said, are Maine lobsters that are relocated here at a young age and raised in the cold, deep waters off the Big Island's Kona Coast. It produced a triumph on this plate, butter-poached and served as a very generous portion -- two huge claws and the tail meat. It was accompanied by scalloped potatoes, fennel and caviar.
First-rate dining is customary for the Four Seasons brand, and it is especially true at its four Hawaii resorts. The two on this little island -- at the Koele and Manele Bay hotels -- make dinner an event.
The Lodge at Koele has the feel of a grand plantation estate from the 19th century, with plenty of wood and leather
It is steeply priced, but memorable for other reasons, too. One starter was a spring-pea veloute accompanied by crisp raviolis stuffed with morel mushrooms -- ideal for dunking in the creamy soup. An organic salad held a generous portion of island greens, with asparagus and dried cranberries.
They make a dessert souffle here every night, but the generous entrees left us no room for it. Service, meanwhile, was flawlessly attentive.
Across the island, at the Manele Bay resort, the Ihilani restaurant is doing something daring for these islands -- contemporary Italian dishes made with Hawaiian ingredients. It may sound like an odd marriage, but it works here.
A special of monchong fish was terrific, served on a bed of pasta tubes with little chunks of lobster. Ihilani's pastas are made fresh on site, and of course the menu holds a seafood risotto.
A caprese salad was a big hit at our table, with fabulously ripe Big Island tomatoes -- in May. It served notice that tomato season arrives much earlier than the Fourth of July in these southerly latitudes.
The dining quality falls off quickly on Lanai after those two fine establishments, though.
The restaurant at the Hotel Lanai in town, Henry Clay's Rotisserie, shut down recently. After renovations, it will reopen as the Lanai City Grille, according to a hotel staffer.
Here's hoping the new place is not as overpriced (notably on the wine list) as we found Henry Clay's to be while staying at the hotel. The Hotel Lanai restaurant attracts Four Seasons guests looking for a different dining experience on the island. It needs to learn that simply offering prices a tick below the upscale resorts does not constitute a bargain.
Another option in Lanai City is the simple fare -- pasta, pizza, draft beer -- of Pele's Other Garden (911 Houston St.). And, in the morning, be sure to head to the expansive front deck of the Coffee Works (604 Ilima St.), a suitable setting to enjoy its gourmet coffee and pastries.
The Manele Bay Four Seasons offers classic Hawaii ambience at its Ocean Grill -- poolside, with flaming tiki torches, overlooking idyllic Hulopoe Beach. But about everything else here was a disappointment.
Hawaiian sea bass was pan-roasted so long that its natural juiciness and flavor were long gone. Wine service disappeared halfway through dinner, forcing us to retrieve our sauvignon blanc from a distant ice bucket and keep it thereafter at the table.
And there is no discernible dress code or decorum, so the experience can be marred by slovenly golfers hollering to one another across the restaurant as they relive the day's round.
Nice view, though.
IF YOU GO:
Lodge at Koele, (808) 565-4000; Manele Bay, (808) 565-2000; Pele's Other Garden, (888) 764-3354; Hotel Lanai, (808) 565-7211; Coffee Works, (808) 565-6962.