Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Ryan Siphers
What we each like to eat is such a unique part of who we are. What exactly is it that makes a dish linger in our memories, drawing us—sometimes driving us—to revisit its distinctive flavors and textures? Cultures, childhoods, families, defining moments all play in to what we love to see on our plates. And then there is food that is simply so delicious and well prepared that a consensus emerges around it: We love it! So here is a mix of both the individual and the collective: a few of my own personal favorite dishes at the restaurants that the readers of Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi have chosen as the island’s best.
Miso Phat Sushi
Gold: ‘Aipono for Best Sushi
The fun is in the puns at Miso Phat. Names like TNT Roll (Miso the Bomb), Rainbow Roll (Miso Pretty), and 69 Roll (Miso Horny) offer a sense of the creativity at work here—and all laughter aside, this is one of Maui’s primo sushi experiences. My favorite thing at Miso Phat Sushi is the rice-to-fish ratio. The restaurant prides itself on serving big, mouth-filling pieces of umaminess, and there’s no playing hide-and-seek with the ‘ahi, salmon, otoro, or unagi. In fact, you might find yourself saying instead, “Where’s the rice?” But if you are feeling me-so-skinny and wanting rice to fill you out, you can order a terrific chirashi sushi bowl or local-style (only better) poke bowl. The sushi chefs here know the difference between good fish and great fish and on top of that, they know just how to handle great fish. And BTW, Miso Phat Sushi owns the boat they catch their fish on. Its name? Shiso Phat. Two locations: Azeka Center Mauka, 1279 South Kīhei Rd., Kīhei, 891-6476 and 4310 Honoapi‘ilani Hwy., Kahana, 669-9010.
Gold: ‘Aipono Award for Restaurant of the Year
“Really? Foie gras and ‘ahi together?” my husband asked skepti- cally. We were sitting together at the bar of the Lahaina Grill reading over the appetizer menu and—though I was tempted by fleeting thoughts of diver scallops with lobster beurre blanc— “Yes,” I said, “definitely. Foie gras and ‘ahi.” I’d been thinking about the dish ever since I’d first tasted it a few months ago: the seared foie gras and the fresh ‘ahi, nestled on a bed of sautéed spinach, pan juices mingled with a fig compote and Maui onion demi-glace. Slicing through the stack, my first bite of foie gras, caramelized and nearly blackened on one side, had a tender crunch that was followed with a delicate morsel of ‘ahi. The sauces and goose liver fat, reduced in the pan with a touch of truffle oil, had offered a richness that even a properly cooked rib-eye steak couldn’t match. So we quickly placed our order and ten minutes later, I was once again relishing a meeting with this divine dish, sipping Château Suduiraut Sauternes as I did so. My husband and I slowly savored each bite, nibbling on the tiniest dried figs until the very end. And when I left, it was with the desire to return yet again—the hallmark sensation evoked by the greatest restaurants. 127 Lahainaluna Rd., Lahaina, 667-5117.
Sale Pepe Pizzeria e Cucina
Gold: ‘Aipono for Best Italian
“You haven’t had Michele’s lasagna yet?!” Qiana Di Bari asks me. “We have had grown Italian men say it tastes exactly like their own mother’s!” Qiana—wife of Sale Pepe’s chef, Michele Di Bari—is the front-of-the-house diva at the couple’s celebrat- ed Italian restaurant. I have to admit that even after countless dinners at the intimate little hideaway, I have not eaten it; I’ve been stuck in love with the house-made strozzapreti with Cal- abrian sausage. Minutes later, Michele himself is delivering me a plate of piping hot lasagna napped in long-simmered Bolog- nese sugo made with imported San Marzano tomatoes and lo- cally sourced Maui Cattle Company grass-fed beef. “You know we make fresh mozzarella daily for our pizza, pastas, and lasagna, right?” he queries. “Really?” I respond in disbelief, thinking of the labor-intensive prep. Then I turn my atten- tion to the luscious dish before me and my senses awaken as a delicate drift of nutmeg rises from the creamy béchamel. Sale Pepe is finalmente forte nel nostro cuore (strongly commit- ted in their heart) to serving the best Italian dishes. Mangiare insieme! 878 Front St., Lahaina, 667-7667.
Silver: ‘Aipono for Best Hawai‘i Regional
When it comes to food I normally have great self-control but every so often I get a craving. And recently that craving took me across Maui to one of my favorite haunts, Kō Restaurant, in search of crispy lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) for lunch. I was near fainting from hunger when I arrived, and the bowl of lumpia— filled with ground chicken and mushrooms and served with a side of achara (lightly pickled shredded green papaya)—was so ‘ono (delicious) that I couldn’t stop eating. The fresh fish of the day next sated my desires: tender monchong in a golden macadamia-nut crust, sautéed and served atop a slathering of tomato-ginger sauce. Emerald-green pak choi and a doubly oversized serving of coconut-infused mashed purple sweet po- tato made me say, ‘WOW!’ Calamansi lemonade was the perfect drink to go with. 4100 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, 874-4100.
Aloha Mixed Plate
Gold: ‘Aipono for Best Plate Lunch
Takeaway is a major part of the business at Aloha Mixed Plate but on the day a friend and I visited, we decided to enjoy sous chef Kaluna Kaauwai’s creations in situ so we took a seat. Contrary to the classic Hawai‘i mixed plate for which the restaurant is named—a culinary phenomenon that conjures visions of sugary teriyaki meat, fried chicken, Spam, two scoops of white rice, and one scoop of macaroni salad—the plate lunches at Aloha Mixed Plate are among the healthiest to be found in the Islands. When I took my first bite of Japanese- style miso eggplant, I flashed back to my aunt’s version. Did they steal her recipe? The dish, not overly salty-sweet, had a hint of the ocean to it; it was served alongside a crispy green bean salad with cherry tomatoes napped in rice vinegar dressing. The chow fun, cooked hot wok style, had a gentle smokiness to it. My plate lunch was rounded out by a side of kimchi, plus a beet salad with baby mixed greens, cucumbers, carrots, and almonds. My friend’s order of grilled fish with shiitake rice came topped with fresh pineapple salsa; his plate also included chunky fork-tender teriyaki beef that had been cooked in an imu. It was served with a side of miso-charred brussels sprouts sprinkled with bubu arare—a dish we both agreed could eas- ily be a stand-alone winner.
1285 Front St., Lahaina, 661-3322.