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Dining: Cuisine du Soleil

Jessica Taylor

“Il N’est Pas Fusion,” asserts Yves Garnier, chef de cuisine for La Mer, Oahu’s celebrated French restaurant. If he were in his native Provence and not in Hawaii, Garnier acknowledges, he might not be so vigilantly opposed to the fusion concept. But here at this confluence of cultures, he is determined to remain an island of purely French cuisine. “The world has gotten smaller, and there are a lot of exchanges,” says Garnier. “I do not want to be pigeonholed by anyone saying, ‘Oh, you are now making Hawaiian, or Polynesian, or Asian, or whatever you have.’ ”

Although the chef insists that his cuisine retain a French identity, he is not so adamant about La Mer’s decor, which exudes a decidedly South Pacific elegance. The restaurant is located in the Halekulani hotel’s original main house—a 1930s plantation-style cottage appointed with gold-paneled walls, teak trimmings, and rattan furnishings. With its open-air dining facing Diamond Head, La Mer is one of Hawaii’s most romantic settings.

Formerly of Monte Carlo’s La Coupole, where he earned a Michelin star and often cooked for Prince Albert, Garnier combines classical French elements, such as foie gras and escargot, with the sunshine-infused flavors of Provence: fish, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, garlic, rosemary, and sage. Much of his menu, which continually changes, consists of fresh ingredients procured locally, while other items, such as the many European selections found on the cheese tray, are flown in fresh several times a week. Garnier refers to his cooking as “neoclassic,” his term for contemporary French cuisine that employs traditional technique but omits the heavy creams.

One of the menu’s more intriguing—and delightful—items is the thinly sliced raw abalone and celery root with sweet sake sauce. The delicacy is presented with an abalone shell and a slice of lime, and the maître d’ will suggest squeezing the lime over the entire dish. Abalone, sake, and lime? As exceptional as this dish is, and it is pure bliss on a fork, the only thing French about it is the chef who created it. Garnier is prepared for such an observation. This selection falls under a small portion of the menu he calls “creative.” In this instance, one is happy to surrender the semantics and simply enjoy the exquisite taste sensations.

Like Garnier, La Mer sommelier Randy Ching will demonstrate his creativity. He often suggests a Riesling instead of the customary Sauternes with the sautéed foie gras. It took Ching several months to persuade the traditionalist Garnier to taste the unique pairing. “But when he finally tried it, he loved it,” says Ching. The 400 selections on the wine list include three designed exclusively for the hotel.

The perfect finish to an evening spent enjoying the sunset, food, and wine at La Mer is offered by pastry sous chef Rick Chang: mango crème brûlée or pistachio ice-cream bonbons accompanied by chocolate chopsticks. Il est fusion, but c’est la vie.

La Mer, 808.923.2311, www.halekulani.com

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