Where THe Moon Meets The Sea
Fine dining and comfort food intertwine at Moon & Turtle, where co-owners Soni and Mark Pomaski craft quality dishes and cocktails that pay homage to the island’s culture.
Why would Hilo-born-and-raised chef Mark Pomaski, whose professional credits include working at renowned restaurants like Roy’s Hawai‘ i and Nobu 57 in New York, come home to create a small, elegant restaurant, the likes of which Hilo had never seen before?
“It occurred to me that many Hilo natives left home as soon as they could, which is common in a small town,” says Pomaski, who opened Moon & Turtle in 2013 with his wife, Soni. “And while there is nothing wrong with that, I felt that people should return and bring the things they learned and experienced in other parts of the world. As many locals know, Hilo is a special place and has a certain magical draw. I always knew that if I were to start something of my own, I would want to come back to my hometown to do it.”
And thanks to his experience getting to live on O‘ahu and in one of the great cultural centers of the world, New York City, Mark had a lot of amazing culinary experiences that he could share.
“There is an undeniable creative pulse that never stops in places like New York City,” Mark says. “I believe our work and living experience there helped us gain the confidence to embark on our own venture. In the city, everything is a fight of sorts to claim your room on the subway, to find an apartment, to get and keep a job. New York is one of the toughest places to make it, but having not just made it but to feel like we were capable of doing something more.”
Coming home, Soni — who manages the daily operations of the restaurant, is an expert at craft cocktails and serves as their in-house photographer — says nothing was at all what they expected.
“As first-time restaurant owners, we knew it would be an all-consuming challenge, but I think nothing quite prepares you for it,” she says. “One of the most surprising parts of this experience, however, has been finding out how resilient we are, and how much it has been a positive part of our marriage. It has been so rewarding to share this creation together.
“We were also surprised and grateful for the acceptance and amazing support of locals in Hilo. From the start, people showed up (and continue to show up), bearing fruits or vegetables from their yard, family recipes they want to share with us, and best of all, friendship!”
Though at first the couple had to explain to many who came through their doors that the former Full Moon Café Thai restaurant had the same name but a whole new menu, they quickly grew a loyal following.
Chef Mark believes that “simplicity is the soul of elegance,” and that philosophy has become the cornerstone of the restaurant, which was renamed Moon & Turtle a year after the couple took over the spot. There’s nothing else quite like it in Hilo. A typical menu consists of five small plates and three large ones that are intended for family-style sharing.
“We can only prepare and confidently execute so many items without sacrificing quality,” Mark says. “We also focus on teaching our kitchen staff fundamentals and choose not to outsource products that we are able to make ourselves, including pastas, breads, smoked meat and fish, etc.”
Mark’s first 10 years as a chef were strictly in sushi bars, where a minimalist approach to traditional sushi took hold and never left. The best food, he says, is simply prepared food.
His signature item, which you will likely always find on the Moon & Turtle menu, is his “Smokey Sashimi” featuring local fish, kiawe-smoked soy, Hawaiian chili pepper water and extra-virgin olive oil.
“I was inspired by Nobu’s yellowtail jalapeno dish during my time there — it was so delicious, popular and easy to execute,” Mark recalls. “It also told a bit of Nobu-san’s personal story. So I wanted to create a dish with those same qualities that would draw upon the flavors of my childhood.
“Growing up in Hilo, the smell of smoke was a big part of my memories — smoked sausage or fish, pipi kaula. One place we lived in Pāpa‘ikou had a smoke house and my dad would go out there and play around with smoking chicken or duck. My mom is Vietnamese, and we always had chili peppers in the house, so the flavor of chili pepper water was also a part of those childhood memories.”
Mark says he always tries to utilize local ingredients to create something that is familiar to the local palate, but still fresh and interesting, like his kalo cakes with local taro and sour poi crème fraiche or oxtail pappardelle with braised Big Island grass-fed oxtail and Mark’s house-made semolina pasta. Crispy Brussels sprouts feature “Mom’s citrus/garlic fish sauce” and local ‘ōpelu are fried whole accompanied by local cucumber and Mom’s sauce, too.
“We think about textures, colors, contrast and harmony,” he explains. “We try to push ourselves in the kitchen to learn new techniques and methods that will be intriguing to our guests and allow our kitchen staff to expand the tools in their own repertoire.”
Moon & Turtle not only showcases Mark’s culinary skill but also spotlights many locally sourced products from the Big Island.
His favorite food to work with is high-quality fish and shellfish. He supports Hilo Fish and Suisan as well as nurtures personal relationships with local fishermen, too. You can find micro-greens from Kīpu‘upu‘u Farms; hearts of palm, citrus, lychee and spices from OK Farms; naturally raised chicken from Puna Chicks; and espresso from Rusty’s Hawaiian. Even the popular Hilo Farmers Market is sourced for unique ingredients on a regular basis.
“What was originally envisioned as a small ‘mom-and-pop sushi shop’ grew to be this full-service restaurant,” explains Soni. “I remember Mark’s brother Tedd, who eventually helped to open the restaurant and who was a partner for the first year, sending us the listing for this spot and while it was beautiful, it was way too big for what we had imagined. We were sitting in a New York Philly cheesesteak sports bar we frequented, talking about it and the next song that came over the sound system was Henehene Kou ‘Aka by Bruddah Iz. We took that as a sign.”
In the last five years, Moon & Turtle has received numerous accolades, including Critic’s Choice for Best Neighbor Island Restaurant at the 2015 ‘Ilima Awards.
And while the locals would like to keep this gem of a restaurant to themselves, word has gotten out on how delectable not only the fare but also the craft cocktails are.
“We’re lucky to have a mix of both locals and visitors alike,” says Soni. “From special occasion dinners to pau hana — the best part about looking into the dining room is seeing so many different types of people. Some are dolled-up in their finery, and others are just pau surfing and looking for a quick pick-me-up.
“When we see an eclectic mix of guests, it makes us feel we’ve accomplished our goal of creating an open and welcoming environment that is a part of our neighborhood and community. Moon & Turtle is our home and the best thing is to hear guests refer to it as theirs, too.”
Moon & Turtle is located at 51 Kalākaua St. in Hilo. Call 961-0599 for more information.