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REVIEW: Volcano House – Flashes of Brilliance

June 20, 2014, 4:31 PM HST
* Updated September 8, 12:34 PM
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“This is the best hotel in the Kingdom.”

-J.M. Nelson, 10 June 1882

As we sat looking out over the glowing pool of lava below us, waiting for our first appetizers to arrive at the Volcano House Hotel’s signature restaurant, “The Rim,” we couldn’t help but reflect over a simple, miraculous fact:

The Volcano "House" circa 1866. National Park Service image.

The Volcano “House” circa 1866. National Park Service image.

Despite fire and foibles, somehow this thing still exists.

First built as a small thatched hut to house crusty adventurers in the mid-1800s, the original “Volcano House” was slowly modified over several decades. By 1900, a full-service hotel had been constructed to house an increasing number of tourists eager to catch a glimpse of Madam Pele at work.

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Some got more than they bargained for.

Onlookers watch the aftermath of a large explosion fronting the old Volcano House Hotel. National Park Service image.

Onlookers watch the aftermath of a large explosion fronting the old Volcano House Hotel. National Park Service image.

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After a series of large volcanic explosions rocked the area in 1924, blowing countless rocks and boulders sky-high, there was controversy over whether something so close to an active volcano should even be open to the public.

Ironically, the hotel burned down from entirely different causes in 1940. What replaced it is the iconic building that still stands today, overlooking the mouth of Halemaumau.

More recently, the hotel came under the controversial management of Hilo mini-mogul Ken Fujiyama. Viewed by some as a well-capitalized squatter, Fujiyama took much of the blame (fairly or not) for the hotel falling into disrepair.

The dining room as it stands today. The view can be jaw-drooping. Aqua hospitality image.

The dining room as it stands today. The view can be jaw-dropping. Aqua hospitality image.

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Now re-opened after a lengthy renovation (and a change of management), the hotel has re-launched its flagship dining room with a focus on local ingredients and quality service, attempting to elevate its cuisine and re-capture its former glory.

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With the hotel wrapped in fog during our first trip to “The Rim,” the very nicely-executed Creamy Kabocha Squash Soup ($10) we ordered provided a warming welcome, with just enough aromatics to accent, without overwhelming. Be sure to request a re-heat should yours arrive too cool for comfort. You (and the soup) deserve it.

Our soup was followed by “Kona Cold” lobster/crab cakes with Dragon Fruit butter (market price)… less than fresh, with a slaw-like topping too wilted to enjoy.

The "Asian Bar-b-Que Prawns" featured here are a stand-out dish. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The “Asian Bar-b-Que Prawns” featured here are a stand-out dish. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

We next ordered a plate of “Asian Bar-B-Que Prawns” ($15) with cautious expectations, as “Asian” bar-b-que sauces sometimes end up as an insult to both Asians and bar-b-ques. But no need to worry, the spices used here actually heighten the flavor of the shrimp. The savory sticky rice accompanying them might even be a revelation for some, proving that not all things made with coconut milk need be sweet. Try ordering the shrimp “medium” to ensure yours arrive plump and juicy.

The dining room here is relatively spartan in décor, which isn’t a bad thing, given the spectacle that mother nature presents in the vast volcanic crater below. For added effect, the staff shuts off the lights briefly each evening to provide diners an unobstructed view of Halemaumau’s lava-hued glow.

The 8-ounce New York steak ($39) is piled with wild mushrooms and crab meat. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The 8-ounce New York steak ($39) is piled with wild mushrooms and crab meat. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

On both trips here we ordered the 8-ounce New York Steak with crab and wild mushrooms, known as the “Mauka & Makai” ($39).

Although crab and mushrooms are proven friends on the human palate, the sautéed ingredients here were so finely sliced and shredded together that they ended up working against each other in the texture department. We found ourselves longing for each ingredient to be separated, allowing diners to enjoy plump crab meat and rich mushrooms at their leisure, between bites of an otherwise nicely cooked piece of Americana.

The Hilo Coffee-rubbed rack of lamb ($39) was perfectly cooked on both trips here. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

The Hilo Coffee-rubbed rack of lamb ($39) was perfectly cooked on both trips here. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Almost as if they read our minds, our next entrée arrived with each component relatively isolated: the Pan-Seared Kona Kampachi ($34) was served with seaweed salad, and poached lobster meat. Each component complemented the other, while being given enough space on the plate to be enjoyed on its own. The potato/heart of palm gratin that came with the entrée was well-executed, but felt misplaced given the white-fleshed, slightly oily fish.

The Hilo Coffee-rubbed rack of lamb ($39) we ordered was perfectly cooked on both trips here – the Poha-Mint Demi Glace thickened just enough to prevent it being sludge-like.

Sliced bananas and cream-in-a-cup does not a pie make. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Sliced bananas and cream-in-a-cup does not a pie make. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

For dessert, we tried the Banana Coconut Cream Pie ($7) – flawless on our first trip. A light pastry cream and fresh bananas are enhanced by a graham cracker crust and coconut two ways: shredded, and (we think) liquored. Yum.

On our second trip, the pie arrived… in a cup. Huh. Figuring it was a mistake, we came back a third time for the dessert, and encountered the same – cream in a cup, with a few token banana slices on the side. After asking about this, we were told “sometimes it just comes like that.”

We wish it wouldn’t.

The Volcano House is located at 1 Crater Rim Dr, Volcano, HI 96718.

For reservations, call: 808-756-9625. For directions, click here.

To visit their website, click here.

A couple relaxes in front of the iconic Volcano House fireplace. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

A couple relaxes in front of the iconic Volcano House fireplace. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

      

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