"That was the best meal we have ever had!" they said for the 5th time in a week. Each better than the last, if only for the immediate sensory stimulation involved in the excitement of the senses when fine dining. To be sure, Maui is a culinary garden of Eden, with an array of ambiance and gastronomical delights for every diner's palette.
We arrived in Maui in the middle of the day, starved despite hours of gnawing on the completely inedible food offerings at airports, and on airplanes. It seems like on travel days, you eat so much, and spend so much, with so little satisfaction despite the diet busting calorie consumption. So, what did we do, but look for a place for lunch.
On the recommendation of Michael at the Maui Sunseeker Resort, a tropical paradise on the beach in Kihei, we landed at Coconuts, also in Kihei. The casual grill was crowded, which is always a good sign when exploring parts and restaurants unknown. The specialty here is fish tacos, and we were treated to two homemade tortillas filled with the grilled fish of choice, piled high with cabbage slaw and topped with fresh mango cubes. Wow! Were they fantastic!
We would have been full even had we not just gorged ourselves on cardboard and trans fats on our air journey, but owner Mike Phillips still came out into the restaurant inquiring if anyone wanted more food. The guy is crazy, but totally serious. If after eating these massive, delicious tacos you are still hungry, I have no doubts he'd load up another plate and hand carry it out to you. Doubtful he has ever had to do it though.
We settled into our hotels, rested a bit, and got showered and dressed for our dinner reservation at Mama's FishHouse. Located on a gorgeous swath of beach dotted with coco palms and frequented by serious surfers, and sail surfers, Mama's is well known on the islands, and throughout the world. It is that special place you go for a romantic meal, or for the best fresh local fish, or whatever special occasion you might want to make that much better.
We were met there by Karen Christenson, Mama's daughter herself. Born in Tahiti, Karen told us the remarkable story of how her parents, then living in Southern California, bought a boat, taught themselves to sail, and then journeyed around the world, with a brief stopover in Tahiti to have kids, before permanently locating in Maui, on the road to Hana, where they bought a few acres on the beach. The rest, as they say, is history.
Karen treated us to a tour of the kitchen with Executive Chef, Perry Bateman, who walked us through the controlled - very controlled - chaos of a big time kitchen with dozens of employees, each attending to their vital, specific duties. Whether it was the sous-sous-sous chefs chopping buckets of fresh Maui onions, or the pastry chef, still dutifully making fresh rolls for the diners to come. This place serves an average of six hundred meals a day, yet the saute pans hanging by the dozens above the busy stovetops were spotless and shiny. Chef Bateman joked that other chefs who come to the kitchen chide them about their pans not being seasoned. "They are seasoned plenty, they're just clean," he tells them.
We were even led into the fish room (which did not smell like fish!), where the fresh catch is iced down before being filleted into various steaks for the range of fine fish dinners available here. One of the reasons Mama's offers some of the best fish dishes in the entire Pacific region is the deep buoys they control, where their fisherman can harvest a rich bounty from the depths of the sea. Chef Bateman feels the onaga is in fact the best fish on the menu, owing to it's special flavor and texture by virtue of the deep sea waters where it is harvested. You rarely find it anywhere else on the island.
So, we had to have it, along with the signature entree at Mama's, the macadamia nut crusted mahimahi stuffed with crab and lobster. The preparations are what you want to look for here, as many restaurants serve the standard Hawaiian fish fare - mahi, ono, ahi, and opakapaka. There is a range of options, from the decadent lobster and crab stuffing for the mahi, to the delicate steamed broth that accompanied the onaga. They were both fantastic.
For appetizers, the chef sent us a special spring roll with mahimahi that was a unique presentation of this fish. The ahi appetizer was velvety and delicate; it really did melt in your mouth. There are also a listing of farm to table salads, one I tried was the heirloom tomato, Point Reyes blue cheese and Maui onion drizzled with 18-year aged balsamic vinegar. All of it was fantastic.
But then the show started. We each ordered desserts, and they were all works of art. The Polynesian Black Pearl was the ultimate jewel. It was too pretty to eat, but we persevered.
Of course Mama's offers diners who don't wish fish, entrees like the traditional slow cooked pork (Karen admitted this was her favorite, but don't tell anyone), beef short ribs, and locally raised beef tenderloin. The menu changes daily, depending on the availability of fresh fish, and the moods of the chefs.
Speaking of moods, the staff here are all friendly, as they are all part of Mama's big extended family. And, no doubt they are, many having worked here for ten or twenty years. Mama's is that special combination of food mastery, Pacific island magic, and professional service unsurpassed on all of the islands. For a truly special occasion, try this place!
Not far from Mama's on the road to Hana is the town of Paia, and it is here where we stopped for lunch Thursday, after a harrowing day of ziplining in the upcountry. The Paia Fish Market is a casual, crowded spot, with picnic tables, and a steady line of hungry diners, ordering up fish and chips, grilled fish lunch plates, and creamy white clam chowder. The fish tacos here are pretty good too.
I ordered a grilled opakapaka served over a caesar salad, and it was the perfect, delicious, light lunch I needed, in preparation of our luau that evening, The Feast at Le Le.
If you come to the islands no doubt you have done a luau. The experience is usually a sumptuous buffet which includes the staples of traditional island dining - poke, poi, and roast pig, among other things. Not so at The Feast.
Located on a beautiful sliver of beach in Lahaina, The Feast at Le Le is a culinary tour of the South Pacific, in five family style courses, all waiter served at your oceanside table. With each course comes the local fare of first, Hawaii, then New Zealand, followed by Tahiti, then Samoa, and finally the fifth course is desserts, which I guess reign from on high.
With each course there is a suggested wine pairing, and diners are treated to the native dance and song of the corresponding region. The experience is not like other luaus to which I've been, save the stunningly beautiful sunset, which might just be a requirement of all of them. The island of Lanai and the sail boats off the Lahaina shore conspired to create a most dramatic backdrop for The Feast.
The menu is complete, with roast pork; steamed chicken in coconut milk; scallops served in the half shell; local fish; salmon; mussels; duck, and a host of local vegetables. But the real treat of this luau is that the beverages, including a wide array of alcoholic choices, including the wine pairings, are all included, and all you can drink! Now that's what I call a luau.
Beverly Gannon is mover and shaker in the restaurant business on the island of Maui. Gannon is one of the original founding members of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine Movement, championing the use of fresh local ingredients that showcase the fusion of flavors that is Hawaiian cuisine. She operates 3 restaurants, Hali'imaile General Store, Joe's in Wailea, and, Gannon's, A Pacific View Restaurant, located at the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Courses, a breathtaking location in South Wailea, with, indeed, a stunning view of the Pacific.
We were lucky to have breakfast at Gannon's Friday morning, and it was, as Beverly herself describes her restaurants, "a unique dining experience" with "the finest local ingredients, service with aloha, and the sharing of meals with friends and loved ones."
We sure needed a few more friends, as the portions were humungous. I ordered the Loco Moco, a favorite for breakfast on the island. It consisted of a bed of kimchee rice, upon which two 1/4 pound angus patties were stacked, followed by eggs of your choice. It comes with a mouthwatering gravy that completes the dish, and seals your fate for the day. My colleagues enjoyed various incarnations of eggs benedict, with salmon and crab, with a hollandaise sauce that made them smile with each bite.
Try the light, sweet banana macadamia nut pancakes, and make sure to get a breakfast bread of some kind so you can slather on the coconut butter and guava jelly. With Molokini visible through the swaying palms, Gannon's is a great place for a leisurely vacation breakfast.
Or try them for dinner. In addition to walu, mahi, and ahi, they have loin of lamb, braised short ribs, rib-eye steaks, chicken, pork and even venison. Had I not had such an amazing breakfast, I might have been able to sampler dinner. Maybe next time.
After fasting for the remainder of the weekend, we decided to give Mrs. Gannon another try, heading to the upcountry to dine at the Hali'imaile General Store. The place is located in a small hillside town, with great views of the ocean during the day. But this was the dead of night, and I thought we were heading to the middle of nowhere until, around the bend, a brightly lit, general-store looking, building appeared in a field of sugar cane.
Once inside, the restaurant feels like you're in a field of flowers, even in the middle of night. It is bright and cheery, as is the wait staff, who guided us through a sashimi Napolean appetizer with layers of ahi tartare, smoked salmon, sashimi ahi, crispy wonton "pastry" and a spicy wasabi vinaigrette; some popcorn shrimp served in a Chinese takeout container with a trio of dipping sauces - truffle honey, spicy miso and sweet soy, along with some real popcorn; and, a haricot vert salad with baby arugula, oven roasted tomatoes, shaved parmesan, toasted pine nuts and a tangy truffle vinaigrette.
This restaurant was founded in 1925 as a plantation store for Upcountry pineapple workers. Beverly Gannon took it over, with her husband Joe, in 1987, converting it to a gourmet takeout deli and general store. Not long after opening, seeing the amazing success the location was having, they decided to add seats, and make it the fine dining establishment it is today. It looks more like a ranch for keeping hungry paniolos happy. That's cowboys for you mainlanders.
So, we decided, each of us, to try the rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes and asparagus. How quickly one gets one's appetite back when in the presence of great food. The steak was delectable, meaty and satisfying with the garlic herb butter and homemade steak sauce.
For dessert we sampled the entire menu, with a pineapple upside-down cake (just seemed like the right thing to try); lilikoi brulee in an almond brittle shell; and, Grandma's chocolate "ice box" cake. Not a crumb was left as the smoke cleared and we got up from the table.
Monday's culinary tour found us back in Lahaina at The Lahaina Grill. The building looked quite similar to the General Store, no doubt once housing a general store, adjacent to the historic Lahaina Inn. Inside was like walking into the impressionist room at the Louvre. The walls are covered with spotlighted paintings of gardens, and flowers to make for a thoroughly sparkling dining room.
This restaurant has been voted Maui's best 20 years in a row (1994-2013), and it is easy to see why. The menu is packed with nothing but fun things to eat. We started with the cake walk -lobster, pacific rock crab and diver scallop cake with avocado relish and mustard cream; seared ahi tuna cake with avocado relish, sushi rice, nori, tamari ginger vinaigrette; and, a white shrimp cake with hoisin and creme fraiche. That's all on one plate, as an appetizer!
A look over the menu reveals one very striking thing - chefs Jurg Munch and Amulfo Gonzales must be crazy! They are like the painter who covered the walls of the restaurant with art, throwing bits of every color in the rainbow, into every single dish. Another appetizer - blue corn panko crusted chile relleno, filled with tiger prawns, diver scallops, Monterey jack cheese, on roasted corn relish, with avocado, creme fraiche and roasted tomato-ancho chile salsa. Say what!
I had a salad of dungeness crab, fresh asparagus, avocado, Tahitian vanilla bean infused shallot vinaigrette, reduced balsamic vinaigrette, truffle oil and mixed greens. I think that salad had every major food group in it, or every flavor on earth, to be sure.
For dinner, our table experienced the Maui onion and sesame seed crusted ahi with Tahitian vanilla bean jasmine rice and an apple cider butter vinaigrette, which was more like the most scrumptious beurre blanc you have ever tasted. Really!
We also had the seared lion's paw scallops with a potato-celery root mash, roasted sweet corn relish, crisp pancetta chips, truffle oil, and a lobster champagne beurre blanc. Not bad, but I was so coveting the ahi. That is, until the lobster showed up.
It was a special on this night, guided so skillfully by Mary Crumbacher. our server. She confided that the lobster special was an "out of body experience," and indeed it was. Two pounds of Maine lobster, flown out the 10 hours to make it freshly served, with a madman-chef inspired tamale of wild mushrooms, pancetta, gorgonzola cheese, bearnaise sauce and truffle oil, baked together in the head of the beast, topped with, what else, foie gras. There isn't another rich ingredient on the planet that has been left out of this insane dish. No wonder it is out of body - it's almost illegal!
And sooooooo good.
There were a lot of wonderful dessert choices including triple berry pie, sunken chocolate cake, kula lime tart and vanilla bean creme brulee . If you don't want to commit to one dessert, they do have a sampler that gives you a shot at four of them. Yum. That's what we chose, along with the Kauai pie.
On our last night we decided to stay close to home, and eat at our hotel, the Wailea Beach Marriot Resort and Spa. The Mala Wailea is run by Chef Mark Ellman and has been repeatedly voted one of the best restaurants on the island. Rock legend Alice Cooper calls their cheeseburger "the best on the planet" as it is made from Snake River Farms organic Kobe beef, with applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar or Maytag bleu cheese, and served with all the fixings and fries.
After being greeted by our host, Chef Ellman, we were treated to a delicious appetizer of the seared ahi bruschetta. As entrees, we ordered filet mignon, a Greek salad topped with grilled opah, and seared ahi steak. All were fantastic, enjoyed while sitting on a balcony overlooking the expanse that is the Wailea Marriott, and the ocean lapping at the lava rocks on the coast. In the distance like a Christmas tree, the windmills up near Lahaina flashed their red lights, as if they were ornaments hanging over the pool. For dessert, the chef sent us his signature dish, the Caramel Miranda - a melted dark chocolate and caramel sauce-covered plate with layered and broiled Island fruit, raspberries, Maui Gold pineapple, baby coquitos and vanilla macadamia nut ice cream. Delicious!
To paraphrase a quote from Carmen herself, this dessert says, "Look at me and tell me if I don't have Hawaii in every scrumptuous morsel on this plate." Of course Carmen was talking curves, and Brazil, but you get my drift.
It was the perfect close to a magnificent culinary adventure across the island of Maui, that is not to be missed. Whatever your budget, whatever your taste, you cannot go wrong with the restaurants mentioned above.
photos by: Bill Manuel & Tony Be