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Savor the Flavor with Jim White “The Wining and Dining Guy” May 1, 2010

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Aloha from Maui!  A short guide to Island Cuisine

Mahalo from Jim and Vicki White

We have spent a delightful week wining and dining in Maui.  What’s not to like?  Known to Hawaiian’s as “The Valley Isle”, the island is roughly divided east to west by a lush valley that separates the arid western and southern part of the island from the tropical rainforests and volcanic expanses to the East.  The valley features lots of sugar cane plantations and settlements like Kahului (where the airport and the island’s Whole Foods are located).  To the West and South is where most of the happening resorts and restaurants thrive–from Kapalua down to Makena.  Take the longest short drive of your life when you head east on the Hana Highway which takes you to the island’s remote eastern edge through a magnificent rainforest (42 miles in approximately 2.5 hours; start early or spend the night!).  Or take the turnoff to Haleakala and experience the “House of the Sun”.  The crater of the dormant volcano, which gave birth to the island, is nearly 20 miles in diameter.  In multiple trips I have never made it to the crest at sunrise (a popular tourist sport), opting instead to stop about halfway up to feast at Beverly Gannon’s (from Texas) Hali’imaile General Store, one of the island’s top restaurants.  Now that you have the general lay of the land, let me give you a few highlights of the week.

I’ll start with a travel tip that rivals Rick Steves:  One of our best hotel finds in over 25 years of serious travel, The Maui Oceanfront (Day’s Inn) in Wailea.  Featuring clean, comfortable, compact rooms ON the beach for about a hundred bucks a night (with fridge, microwave, cable, free WiFi, and coffeemaker).  Our room was 50 feet from the surf.  And, what surf it is.  Keawakapu Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii.  It features luxurious silky smooth white sand, with a broad, flat surface that is perfect for strolling.  Beautiful pieces of coral and lava wash ashore here and there as you pass the multi-million dollar vacation homes on your way to the “high rent” district down the beach where The Four Seasons and The Fairmont resorts are located.  If the name weren’t already taken, I would call this stretch of beach the Miracle Mile.  It is Heaven on Earth.

We walked barefoot from our room across carefully manicured lawns with grass like a golf course to the fun and friendly Five Palms Restaurant.  Of course, since shoes are required for service, we rinsed our toes and donned our flip flops before dining!  Five Palms, named for the trees you’re seeing, is an island favorite in the Mana Kai Resort.  It’s a handy spot to know about, not only because the food is good and the wine list very serviceable, but because it serves breakfast, lunch, happy hour and dinner.  We did three out of four.  Breakfast favorites include eggs and bacon, Hawaiian omelets (with pineapple and Maui onions), and pancakes with coconut syrup.  Be sure to try to the French press Illy Caffe instead of the house brew, which tasted like it came from a cafeteria.  The happy hour specials from 4 until 7 feature half-price sushi and PuPu plus half price wine and well drinks.  Appetizers including Baby back ribs that were moist and tender with sweet Hawaiian barbecue sauce, coconut encrusted prawns, and Tuna Maki were almost as tasty as the sunset.  For dinner one night we both enjoyed seasonal island fish, Walu and Hebi, with a fabulous 2008 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc for about $10 over retail (but we found a better deal on this up island.  Stay tuned).  Five Palms:  2960 South Kihei Road. Kihei, HI 96753-6286, (808) 879-2607.

Right next to our fun in the sun value motel is another great restaurant find called Sarento’s on the Beach, 2980 South Kihei Road, (808) 875-7555.  It was booked both nights we were in the neighborhood so we didn’t get to try it.  The menu featured fresh island fish and items prepared with an Italian flair.

The Maui Oceanfront was the bookend, and a happy surprise, for our Maui vacation.  Our actual destination was the Westin Resort and Villas in Ka’anapali (just north of Lahaina), where we spent five glorious nights.  Here’s some irony:  our cheap little motel in Wailea actually has a superior beach to this hoity-toity stretch of Ka’anapali!  We actually got in the car and drove down to Whaler’s Village one day so we could enjoy a better stretch of beach.  Thankfully, we quickly learned to save the parking expense when we discovered Kahekili Beach Park in between the two resorts.  This is where the locals hang out for barbecues, paddle boarding, canoeing, and sunsets.

The Westin suites, like most resort villas on the island, comes equipped with a full kitchen.  So, most of the guests spend a great deal of time preparing meals in their rooms.   We did our share, too, but the most fun was the thrill of the grill poolside at sunset, charring tasty tenderloins and enjoying some delightful 2006 Robert Mondavi Napa Cab, and an outstanding Hess Selection Meritage.   With all this thrilling and grilling,  restaurants are few and far between.  One tasty option option includes Pulehu, an Italian Grill.  I don’t remember much about the food, but the Italian flight of wines from Antinori–four 3 oz. pours of different varietals for $14–was outstanding.

The real dining highlight of the week came as we joined some friends at Mala An Ocean Tavern in Lahaina for a birthday celebration (mine) on the waterfront at sunset.  Your proximity to the horizon at sunset is crucial in Hawaii!  Some of the most beautiful scenes you’ll ever see unfold from about 6:15 until 7.  Ah, like the night of the glorious sunset to the west and the full moon up above to the east!  Nice.  Back to the food.  Like most island restaurants, fresh seafood plays a starring role.  One of the outstanding entrées I can recall mainland or in Hawaii, was Chef Mark Ellman’s Balinese Stir Fry, featuring delicious chunks of fresh fish and a medley of flavors with fresh snap peas, Shitake Mushrooms, and three grain brown rice.  The heat gauge ranges from small, medium to large (spice quotient).  Medium was quite pleasant, but if you prefer something milder, the dish is still great.  Other favorites included the garlic potato soup starter, and a delicious boneless grilled chicken.  Oh, and the Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc is 6 bucks cheaper here than Five Palms!  They had three bottles in-house (until we got there).  This was the wine find of the trip.  You will definitely need reservations to dine here at the magical sunset hour.  1307 Front Street, Lahaina, HI 96761-1725, (808) 667-9394.

View from Mala at the Marriott Outrigger

The Ellmans operate the restaurant at the Marriott Outrigger in Wailea, Mala Wailea.  It used to be our favorite spot for

breakfast overlooking the beautiful, blue Pacific.  It seems like the economy has caused them to do some economizing on the offerings (this may be the hotel keeping food and beverage costs down and not the Ellmans).  The price has gone up since our last visit and the choices are fewer (no smoked salmon and bagels; no funny chef doing over the top omeletes–just a dour faced girl who obviously would rather have been anywhere else than making eggs for haoles!)  It was still a delightful place to be and a much better stop than Denny’s!

LuLu’s Lahaina Surf Club and Grill is a fun place for breakfast and lunch in the Lahaina Canery Mall.  It’s basically a sports bar, and you can shoot a game of pool if you want, but the food and drinks are good.  Banana pancakes with coconut syrup and a scrumptious granola with fresh fruit were early morning favorites.  Midday treats included a good chicken curry and an interesting “Angry Hog” pulled pork sandwich.  Note:  barbecue sauce in Hawaii is very sweet and tomatoey.  Much like Memphis style barbecue.  Definitely go for the “Locals Pitcher” of draught beer.   It’s about two and a half beers for only $5.

Locals told us that Beverly Gannon has opened a new spot in the Wailea Golf Club, called Gannon’s, which we’ll have to try on our next visit.  And, another island favorite, Chef James McDonald continues to operate very popular sister restaurants in Lahaina, i’o and Pacific’o in the 505 Front Street Center in Lahaina (is this Shannon Wynne’s inspiration for Dallas outposts in the 80’s? Remember 8-0, Tango, Rio, etc.?).

Other island happenings:

Oahu, Laurent Tourondel opened BLT– Bistro Laurent Tourondel–in December (you may recall the concept flopped in Dallas). Nobuyuki Matsuhisa has opened his namesake Nobu in Waikiki, and look for his former head chef, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto to open his first Hawaii location this summer.

Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten heats up Kaua’i with his spin on island cuisine with the Kauai Grill at the posh St. Regis Princeville Resort.

Another spot worth mentioning for dining is Paia.  This is sort of the “last chance Texaco” literally and figuratively (although it would be a Standard station) if you’re making the drive to Hana.  Paia is the “last” place to get gas and something to eat before the long and winding road unfolds to the tropical paradise out east.  A lot depends on where you can park, but Charley’s Restaurant has a serviceable burger and cold beer (not recommended if you’re driving, of course) and is a favorite hangout of Willie Nelson.  142 Hana Highway, Paia, HI 96779, (808) 579-9453

For the magic meal at sunset, on the way back, drop some coin at popular Mama’s Fish House, 799 Poho Place, Paia, HI, 96779-9708, (808) 579-8488.

OH, and here’s the reason people spend 5 or 6 hours getting to and from Hana:

In over 2 hours we only made it Waianapanapa State Park (featuring amazing blow holes, black sand beaches, and caves), about 10 miles from Hana between mile marker 32 and 33, before we had to turn around and drive back for a dinner reservation.   The last time I drove to Hana was 1980.  The road is much improved now, and a lot more crowded.  It’s a good surface all the way to Hana now (the last 10 miles from the state park to Hana was dirt and gravel my first time through), but still offers dozens of one lane bridges and hair pen curves–tricky maneuvers for inexperienced drivers who drive at a maddeningly slow pace along the road.  Keep your cool if you’ve driven mountain roads and you get behind them.  Most have enough sense to pull over and let the speedier drivers by.  Others?  Well, just relax and enjoy the scenery!  You definitely do not want to drive this road at night.   Due to a drought there are also fewer waterfalls along the way.  That being said, it is still a magical excursion, and well worth the time investment to get there–or as far as you can get in the allotted time.  Do yourself a favor and budget two days.  Make lots of stops along the way for photos and hiking.  Spend the night in Hana and have a leisurely dinner.  Then drive back the following day.

Mahalo nui loa and aloha!  And, allow me to throw in a bon appétit, too!

Cheers!  Jim

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