The Best Brews

At Café Pesto, a Cup of Coffee Can Be "Pure" Heaven.

by Lance Tominaga

Heavenly ganache, a chocolate torte with raspberry puree, accompanied by a 100% Kona peaberry iced mocha and a 100% Hawaiian coffee french press.

Dare to be different. Bold is better. Life is an adventure. Those are the messages David Palmer champions at his two Café Pesto restaurants on the Big Island.

What’s worked well for us is blending the familiar with the exotic, says Palmer. Everyone knows what a pizza is, so we like to put exotic toppings on it. We let them be adventurous.

And what applies to Café Pesto’s food also applies to its coffee. Café Pesto is one of those rare establishments where 100% Hawaiian coffee is served regularly. While the restaurant also features blended coffees (because Guatemala and Colombia happen to make very good coffees as well, Palmer points out), the advantages of Hawaiian coffee are that the beans are roasted fresh that week, and Palmer usually receives them the same day. We grind them to order, he says, and in the case of ‘French Press’ coffees, they’re brewed right at the table. You can taste the difference.

Grilled fresh catch on a bed of island greens.

At Café Pesto, coffee lovers have a wide selection of coffee concoctions, and Palmer encourages people to give everything a try. The adventurer might want to try a little bit of everything, he says, smiling. People know what coffee is, but it usually never occurs to them that there are different types of coffee; they’re usually consumed with having their Yuban or whatever else is popular on the Mainland. My family, when they visit (from the Mainland), they try the Hawaiian coffees here and they really notice the difference. And they get hooked!

Palmer’s personal favorite is the Kona Peaberry coffee, which he describes as a darker roast that packs a lot of flavor. That, in fact, is probably our biggest seller. He laughs. I’m more of a purist in terms of wanting a really rich, dark-roasted coffee without a whole lot of other flavoring involved.

Also featured at Café Pesto, besides the blends and espressos, are Maui Red Catuai (described on the menu as the Cabernet of coffees), Maui Mocha (rich chocolate flavor) and Kaua‘i coffee (mild and earthy).

The main reason most restaurants don’t serve 100% Hawaiian coffee is cost. Palmer admits the prices he pays for Hawaiian coffees may be as much as three or four times higher per pound than he’d pay for the usual brands. But then again, he says, it’s freshly picked and freshly roasted. We get it right then and there. And the people that we cater to have a real appreciation for the difference.

The Hawaiian coffee drinks are priced from $3 per cup.

Of course, great-tasting coffee isn’t the only reason to visit Café Pesto. The food menu is equally innovative, with a wide variety of tantalizing selections. Café Pesto, in fact, was recently named Best Restaurant on the Big Island by Honolulu magazine.

Lunch items include zesty fresh salads like Ceviche Pasta Salad (Tahitian lime-marinated fresh Island fish and tender gulf shrimp tossed with fettucini, cilantro pesto and sun-dried tomatoes); hot sandwiches like Grilled Chicken Fajita (fajita-wrapped free-range chicken breast with charred peppers, onions and garlic); and sumptuous pastas like Salmon Alfredo (fettucini, smoked salmon, fresh spinach, shiitake mushrooms and fresh Parmesan in a light cream sauce). And dinner entrées include an Island Seafood Risotto (Hawaiian spiny lobster tail, succulent tiger prawns, scallops and grilled vegetable compote mixed with a sweet chili risotto); Mango Glazed Chicken (grilled free-range chicken breasts and chili-anise just served with jasmine rice, grilled eggplant and a pineapple relish); and the Grilled Fresh Catch (prepared with a soy-mustard vinaigrette and served with furikake mashed potatoes and a crispy Asian slaw).

Lunch selections range from $6.95 to $10.95. Dinner selections are priced from $12.95 to $23.95. The menu is the same at both Café Pesto locations.

Palmer opened Café Pesto in Kawaihae in 1988, originally starting as a small take-out pizzeria. It quickly evolved into a popular eatery and served as an early innovator of the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine concept. Palmer opened his Hilo restaurant in 1992 at the newly restored S. Hata Building.

Executive chef Kevin Nutt, owner David Palmer, and Kawaihae manager Michael Cohen.

Café Pesto’s Kawaihae restaurant is located at the Kawaihae Shopping Center on the South Kohala coast (882-1071). The Hilo restaurant is located at the historic S. Hata Building at Hilo Bay (969-6640). Both restaurants are open daily from 11:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. Sunday through Thursday, and 11:00 A.M.-10:00 P.M. on Friday and Saturday.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.