Some things never change, like the soothing rhythm of the ocean, day in and day out, as waves lap against the shores of Oahu. Every visit seems to pick up right where the last left off, as if the whole island had been put on pause in my absence. There’s a timeless quality about the majestic rain forests; the towering mountains and their plunging craters; the flora and fauna buzzing, chirping, and making merry throughout it all. There’s a certain comfort knowing that no matter how long it takes me to return, Hawaii will remain as enchanting a place as the day I first met it.
And yet, in my heart, I know that this is a consolatory lie. Imperceptibly, without conscious intention, everything changes. You can never truly go home again if you’re expecting “home” to align with questionably maintained memories. However, in the case of Honolulu’s evolving food scene, this is a very good thing indeed. One of the newest and most buzzed about establishments to take root in the past six months is Ai Love Nalo, an unassuming outpost on the far-flung coast of Waimanalo. Housed in a former gas station, it would be easy to drive right on by without a second thought, as nothing from the outside hints at the culinary treasures within.
Despite the fact that it’s a considerably trek for city-dwellers, factoring either traffic or bus schedules into the equation, or both if you’re particularly unlucky, it’s a journey always worth taking. Hit Hanauma Bay along the way and make it a day trip; the only way to top those dazzling sights is to follow them with a stellar meal.
Boasting a menu composed of locally-sourced produce and entirely vegan options, you’ll want to take a number of friends for the best experience. Heck, get out there and make some new friends! Join one of the long communal picnic tables out back and introduce yourself; there are no friendlier folks on earth than those living in paradise, as far as I’ve seen.
That said, if there was only one dish to order, it would have to be the Oh WOW Laulau. Wow, indeed! No where else on earth have I found vegan laulau, let alone such a stellar rendition. Traditionally consisting of fatty pork and/or fish steamed in taro leaves, this version eschews the meat in favor of hearty root vegetables, adding creamy coconut into the mix for richness. Not to be overlooked is the Tofu Poke provided on the side, claiming to be spicy but really bearing just enough warmth to taste perfectly balanced. This was easily my personal favorite from the small sampling of dishes provided, but it’s a close call when all the options are so good.
Another front runner is the BBQ Portobello Sandwich. Mushrooms marinated in a bright, smoky barbecue sauce practically sing between two whole wheat buns. Coconut slaw tops off the assemblage with just the right amount of subtle sweetness to contrast the deeply savory flavors within.
Simpler but no less spectacular dishes include the Roasted Veg Platter and Roasted Veg Avocado Sandwich. The way that the vegetables are treated with respect, from the moment they’re harvested from nearby farms to the care taken when they reach the kitchen is evident with every bite. Cooked with care and proffered generously with each serving, even the basics make the trek out here worthwhile. I’m still trying to recreate that impossibly umami gravy offered on the side. It’s one of those things that are so astoundingly, inconceivably delicious, it’s impossible to deconstruct.
Each entree promises an ideal amount of food; satisfying diners without over-stuffing them. That said, you’ll still want to make room for dessert, especially when you see the towering bowls full of Outta This Swirled Soft Serve. Cool, naturally sweet spirals of banana-based soft serve are dressed to the nines with cacao sauce that hardens much like magic shell, granola and coconut flakes tumbling down the mountainous terrain, and fresh fruits that vary based on local availability- Expect papaya always to be in ample supply, based on the thriving papaya trees on premise. Each order is abundant enough to be a considered a full meal in and of itself.
Although it’s foolish to imagine that anything would remain impervious to the inevitable current of change touching all corners of modern life, Ai Love Nalo is one thing I hope will still dazzle in the same place, in the same ways, next time I come back.
Sushi Plate, Featuring Smoked Beet Nigiri: Nitsume sauce, wasabi, shiso, sesame snow.
Abalone Mushroom Sunomono: Shredded and marinated abalone mushroom, accordion-cut cucumbers, wakame, daikon sprouts, and a tosa vinaigrette.
Cauliflower Kara-age: Marinated cauliflower fried in a light yuzu-kosho tempura batter, and served with yuzu aioli and dusted nori.
Soba Noodle Mazemen: Buckwheat noodles, nuka-pickled veggies, charred Tokyo negi, soy-pickled shiitakes, koji-cured carrot, tofu misozuke, and tempura wakame.
Soba Noodle Mazemen: Caramelized tare dashi poured tableside.
Strawberry-Matcha Cheesecake: Cashew-based cheesecake with strawberries and matcha layers. With macerated strawberries and matcha meringue.
Five course plant-based omakase dinner by Chef Kevin Schuder.
Consider it a belated holiday gift; I’ve hidden a little Easter egg in one of the above photos. Try clicking around to find the downloadable the full size image. If you’d like to save it as your desktop wallpaper, right click the larger version, select “Set as Desktop Background,” and choose the “Stretch” option to fit to your screen.
Embarking upon my wild adventure to the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s, it was a given that there were be numerous sweet samples to entertain my taste buds over the following days, but I could have never anticipated the delights that awaited me beyond the industrial freezer case.
My first taste of Vermont came in liquid form, with a tall, bubbly Maple-Sage Tonic, furnished by Juniper Bar & Restaurant and savored in front of the roaring fireplace at the Hotel Vermont. The partnership between these two establishments proved to be a seamless marriage of efficiency and harmony time and again throughout my short stay.
Perusing the typical menu online, there were clearly one or two default meatless options on offer, but nothing to indicate the level of culinary finesse we were soon to encounter. Developed specifically for the Ben & Jerry’s blogger gathering, the chef went above and beyond the call of duty. Greeting us with a lavish welcoming dinner served up family-style, it was dangerously tempting to spoon out a second or third generous helping of every dish.
Ideal for the plummeting winter temperatures outside, the coconut stewed tofu with kaffir lime and peanuts was a top pick, rich and hearty, yet crafted with incredible artistry. The bright citrus notes shone through the coconut broth, infusing each tender cube of tofu thoroughly. Though the seitan cassoulet with cattle beans and celeriac won’t win any beauty contests, it was probably my favorite course of the evening. Bearing incredible depth in each creamy, comforting bite, it was a study in umami that I couldn’t get enough of. It’s exactly the kind of elevated home cooking that I crave after a long, trying day of travel.
I can’t go without mentioning the show-stopping dessert. Despite being absolutely stuffed on savories, I shamelessly devoured every last crumb of the tender chocolate layer cake. Smothered with a rich coat of ganache, nearly solid enough to qualify as a solid bar of chocolate by itself, the flaky sea salt and chopped pistachios on top truly did gild the lily… But I wouldn’t complain about their inclusion, to say the least.
By the end of the trip, I wanted to set up permanent residence in that plush queen-size bed. It wouldn’t have been difficult either, considering the positively luxurious room service menu offered specifically for all of us alternative eaters staying the night. Never before have I experienced the true decadence of a chef-prepared morning meal delivered right to my bed, and let me tell you that even against the impossibly idealized picture painted in so many movies, the real life experience exceeded all expectations. There’s something unspeakably luxurious about having someone else make even a humble bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and maple syrup for you, no matter how uncomplicated the task may be. Even now, looking back on all the incredible bites I enjoyed throughout this crazy adventure, it’s those quiet moments wrapped up in the soft bed sheets with a cup of hot coffee by my side that I genuinely crave the most.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to highlight an establishment that doesn’t readily advertise their prowess in vegan cooking, but these offerings were each so outstanding that it’s absolutely worth the extra effort of making a special request. If you’re booking a room with Hotel Vermont or making dinner reservations at Juniper, let either of these fine establishments know in advance, and you can rest assured that you’ll be well taken care of.
This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.
Blinking sleepily, stupidly at the gate, it took a full ten minutes for the meaning of the digital scrawl to sink in. My cross-country, red-eye flight had been further delayed, now rescheduled to depart sometime in the predawn hour of 2AM. A punishing schedule already awaited me upon arrival, complete with a second plane to catch and events lined up from the moment the wheels hit the tarmac. For all this tumult, I would only be in Burlington, Vermont for a two days all told. What on earth could possible be worth that kind of suffering?
Ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but Ben & Jerry’s new 100% vegan line of almond milk frozen desserts. It’s the one food news story that the whole world is buzzing about lately, omnivorous or otherwise, and I was given the rare opportunity to see the birthplace of this extraordinary creation.
Though the dead of winter would be my last choice for when to visit this picturesque east coast town, the white carpet of snow and cozy blanket of clouds were not without their charms. If only I had an extra day, or perhaps even an extra hour, I would have loved to explore the myriad vegan restaurants just around the corner, but I was here on a bigger mission.
Along with a select group of exclusive, top drawer food bloggers, I was treated to an incredible adventure in the Ben & Jerry’s factory and test kitchen. Our main objective, of course, was to get the goods on the buzz-worthy new pints, developed both for the sake of hungry customers demanding dairy-free options, and to decrease the deleterious environmental impact that goes along with milk production. It was made very clear that these four initial flavors are only the beginning of that pursuit. Although it took 3 years and between 70 – 90 trials in development, there are promising hints that pending the success of this launch, we may eventually have even more flavors tempting us on store shelves.
Delicious and ambrosial as the tasting session was, my highlight of the trip was getting the opportunity to play around with the almond milk base to fabricate a “limited edition” frozen dessert. So exclusive that you will never see it in production, it was still a joy to mix up a big batch of the creamy concoction with any and all the chunky mix-ins my heart desired. Working in teams, my group was responsible for unleashing the “Drunk’n Pumpk’n Pie” upon the party, complete with toasted marshmallows, graham cracker crust pieces, and a generous splash of bourbon. Each spoonful had a whole lot of spirit, but alas, it was no match for the truly superlative “Southern Roots” dreamed up by the competition.
Ben & Jerry’s, if you’re listening: Please put this one on the official line up! Outrageously thick ribbons of caramel swirled through every square inch of the creamy peach bourbon jam base with a hint of cinnamon, intertwining with crunchy chunks of toasted pecans. Within our small, secret sampling society, this creative and unabashedly indulgent mix was a hands-down winner.
But… What about the REAL dairy-free offerings now hitting grocery store shelves and scoop shops nationwide, you ask?
For the full scoop on the flavors themselves and my personal tasting notes, head over to my official review on Go Dairy Free.
This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.