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Tasting the fifth flavor at Star Noodle

Pan-seared scallops are served on a skewer delicately placed on a small shot glass filled with a rich mushroom-flavored broth. AYA GANZ photo

When I think of the holidays, I think of Asian food. It’s a city kid thing. We have the obligatory meals with our families, we get over-done on turkey and roasts, and we long for something different.

I go mad for Asian food. I love noodles and dumplings with a passion. I can’t think of anything better then a bowl steaming with a rich broth, noodles, and a side of chili sauce. Some of my favorite things in the entire culinary world are dumplings or “pockets of joy and goodness,” as I like to call them.

Thank goodness for Star Noodle! Lahaina’s chic noodle shop is undeniably stellar! This city girl got her noodle on this week and it was, oh, so good!

Executive Chef Abby Ferrer and I sat down to talk story. Noodles, broth, umami and New York.

A graduate of the American Culinary Federation, Ferrer began her cooking career in Brooklyn, N.Y. A Queens native and first-generation Filipino, Ferrer has been the executive chef at Star Noodle for five years. Star Noodle’s menu has evolved over time, but its core menu has stayed essentially the same since the restaurant opened in 2010. Guests have come to expect the menu created by famous “Top Chef” alum, Sheldon Simeon, a Filipino-Hawaiian who grew up in Hilo.

You just don’t mess with a good thing, but Ferrer finds ways to play and expand the menu because, “In order for us to give you something new to fall in love with, we have to create a little bit of space,” she said.

Currently. Ferrer is passionate about working with Big Island abalone which she serves with an exoskeleton sauce comprised of dried prawn and squid. Her favorite noodle dish right now is their mentaiko: an udon noodle with spicy cod roe, crispy pork belly and scallions. The flavor is reduced, and rich. The word umami is a description for just that. I asked Ferrer to explain umami a little bit more for me. I learned that the fifth flavor, “umami,” is a Japanese word that means “yummy” or “pleasant, savory taste.” Ferrer went on to explain that the umami component of food’s flavor increases as a result of process: such as ripening and fermenting. Many traditional foods from around the world have this quality; for example: soy sauce from China, kimchi from Korea, and fish sauces such as Thailand’s nam pla and Vietnam’s nuoc mam. Cheeses are another excellent source of umami, and so are tomatoes.

I began my afternoon meal with two delightfully fresh mocktails. Not many restaurants see the importance of creating fresh made-to-order drinks that stand alone without alcohol. These did not disappoint! Oh so refreshing in the midday heat of the west side. I had the watermelon soda and cucumber limeade. Ahhhhh!

I started with the ahi avo which was amazing. This core, Hawaiian go-to is served all over town, but I find it can be a bit boring a lot of the time; like it’s missing something. Star Noodle’s fish was tender, sliced perfectly, and the sauce was on point. Served with pressed lemon oil, sambal and usukuchi shoyu, their dish has just the right combination of brightness, heat, salt and sesame flavors.

Then I had steamed pork buns. A classic done with a modern touch. The bun was lighter than air and shaped more like a pancake that folded over and held the crisp flavorful pork accompanied by pickled daikon, fresh scallions and sambal sauce for dipping.

Next were the nuoc cham wings. Crispy, spicy and sweet. They left my lips burning! Which I just love. So good.

And then, the scallop shot. Wow! This pan-seared scallop was served on a skewer that was delicately placed on a small shot glass filled with a rich mushroom-flavored broth. Incredibly tasty, original, and stunningly plated. I put it on my “again and again” list.

For my main course, I had their classic Singapore rice noodles. This was my favorite dish when I was a kid; light and spiced vermicelli noodles served with chicken, shrimp, sauteed red peppers, Kula onions, cilantro and curry. It took me back to my childhood and was the perfect choice! I also had the hapa ramen whose rich pork broth was a dream. With noodles, bok choy, kamaboko, bamboo shoots, a poached egg, mayu (a black garlic oil) and aka miso (a special red miso). I have to hand it to Star Noodle, their ramen is a supernova.

I didn’t have time for dessert. Next time, Star Noodle, next time.

Thanks again to the lovely staff of Star Noodle. I’m so looking forward to coming back!

* Star Noodle, 286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Call (808) 667-5400.

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