On my recent trip to The Big Island of Hawai'i, where everywhere I ate was just really delicious, easily the best meal I had was at Cafe Pesto in downtown Hilo, Hawai'i. Cafe Pesto got its start in the small town of Kawaihae, on the South Kohala coast, as a take out pizza place and soon transformed into a world class restaurant. Cafe Pesto opened its second location at Hilo Bay in the S. Hata Building in 1992. Walking into the S. Hata building, built in 1912, is like walking into old Hawai'i.
We were served a sampling of Cafe Pesto's signature dishes. Our meal started off with a couple glasses of McManus Syrah, a full bodied red that complimented the appetizer of crab cakes, organic greens with a miso vinaigrette, pahoa relish and really yummy Asian nachos with smoked mozzarella and cilantro cream fresh. The dressings on the two different salads were superb, delicate tastes. Ordering a salad on its own would have been just fine, but I was happy for the variety. The Asian nachos were easily the most interesting thing on the plate, wantons with jumbo shrimp topped with cilantro sour cream, a mild chili dressing, and Kaiwiki corn relish. Really delicious!
Because Cafe Pesto started out as a pizza place, we had to have one of their hand tossed wood fired pizzas. The wild mushroom and artichoke pizza was perfect with a rosemary gorgonzola sauce. It went surprisingly well with the red wine. The delicate flavors of the wild mushrooms balancing the bold flavor of the wine.
We also had Wok Fired Shrimp & Scallops, pan seared shrimp and scallops with a chipotle tamarind sauce, crispy hearts of palm, angel hair pasta tossed in cilantro-red pepper butter. My wife is not a seafood person, but this dish kept her busy. I thought this could have been two separate dishes as the tamarind sauce and the cilantro-red pepper butter didn't seem to want to play nice together. Overall still a wonderful dish. I keep going back to the wine, but it seems that Mario, our waiter, picked the perfect wine to go with all the dishes we were served. Thank you Mario!
The Big Island of Hawai'i is known for its Kona coffee and at Cafe Pesto they take it one step further by getting their coffee from the local Hilo Coffee Mill. I can't say enough good things about the coffee on the Island. Fresh and aromatic coffee grown just miles away makes the stuff we get here on the mainland seem dull. You could go to Cafe Pesto and just have coffee, and have a wonderful experience!
For dessert we ordered two house specialty's, the fresh keanakola hot apple crisp with macadamia nut crumb topping, topped with locally made Tropical Dreams vanilla ice cream made with Tahitian vanilla beans. I love just about anything made with macadamia nuts, and paired with the Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, this was a real treat. The second was a NY style cheesecake with macadamia nut cookie crust and liliko'i passion fruit topping. Holy smokes! New York style cheesecake, macadamia nut cookie crust and then the passion fruit?! At first I thought it was overkill, but then as the flavors mingled together, I got the picture. The softness of the cheesecake and then a punch from the passion fruit was really amazing. Now you have to go there for the coffee, and the cheesecake!
I've been home a week now, and I am still thinking about this meal and my stay in Hawai'i. Hilo is not your typical tourist mecca. In fact, if it's big hotels and glamour shopping you want, head to the Kona side of the island or skip the extra plane ride and stay in Honolulu. But if your vacation style is like mine, easy days, black sand beaches, a volcano or three, possible tsunami's, wacky weather and a small town feel, Hilo is the place to go. At first I thought maybe Cafe Pesto was going to feel a little out of place in Hilo, but after sitting down and having this amazing meal, I know I couldn't have been more wrong. Cafe Pesto is a perfect fit. This is Island Cuisine at its best.
Cafe Pesto offers a great variety of dishes to satisfy just about palate. A full bar, 80's rock, funk, folk and reggae music, low light for a romantic dinner, local art on the walls and a view of Hilo Bay. Crayons for the kids and a recording of Frank Sinatra will sing Happy Birthday to you if it's your day. Japanese menus are available. Cafe Pesto is located at the Historic S. Hata Building • On the Bay, Downtown Hilo, Hawai'i (808) 969-6640 • Fax (808) 969-4858. Visit Cafe Pesto on the web at www.CafePesto.com.