Story by Becky Speere
In 1991, Peter Merriman’s namesake restaurant on the Big Island in Kamuela was my go-to lunch spot when I worked as a sales rep for a Swiss import company. Obsessive foodie that I am, I’d fly in from Maui for my ten-hour whirlwind trip and make sure my itinerary brought me close to my favorite restaurant at lunchtime. The local community embraced Merriman’s stellar command of ingredients, and reservations stacked up daily to sell-out evening service. One of the twelve founding members of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Merriman recognized the rich agricultural history the island offered.
He also understood that “supporting local” meant an increase in his overhead costs. Merriman says, “We purchased locally for one simple reason: Local tasted better and fresher.” Now with five restaurants — two on Maui — Merriman continues to chant the same mantra. “Hawai‘i can grow almost anything, but it is expensive for farmers here,” he says, noting the high cost of water, land, importing seed, and soil amendments. “If people are willing to pay the premium, there is no limit to what the agricultural community can do.” Nor any limit to what Peter Merriman can do with local product.
Opened in 2011, Merriman’s popular Monkeypod Kitchen is the anchor business at Wailea Gateway Center, located at the entrance to Wailea Resort. My daughter Tori and I arrive for a late lunch. The newly renovated patio has been calling to me each time I drive by and see guests buzzing with conversation under the eaves.
Indoors, intricately painted surfboards mounted overhead and bright graffiti street art create a lively backdrop for the bar, which offers a smashing thirty-six varieties of beer on tap. With two happy hours, one starting at 3 p.m., and a late-nighter that draws in a crowd at 9, there’s plenty of time to enjoy a pint or two.
En route to the patio, I run into a couple of friends: Charles Fredy, vice president of sales for Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants, and James Maher, a sales consultant for the company. “Oh, you hang out here, too!” I declare. With a huge smile, Charles points to his lunch and replies, “The pizza is great!” Just as he says that, laughter draws my attention across the room and I see a half-dozen women celebrating with a bride-to-be. I make a mental note to return with my older daughter, Kali, for her upcoming bridal shower.
Maybe out here, I add, as we step outdoors, where a lava-rock water feature anchors each end of the patio. A royal ‘ilima tree drenched in blossoms provides a hot-pink contrast to the black rock. Dark-purple-leafed taro serpentines at the edge of the patio. Umbrellas mimic a canopy of trees, shading us from the Wailea sun. As we sip icy mai tais topped with a delicious cloud of liliko‘i-honey foam, our thoughts turn to the pizza that Charles mentioned, the Bourgeois, a combination of my favorite ingredients: Keahole lobster, Hamakua mushrooms and roasted-garlic cream sauce sprinkled with fresh thyme. Gnocchi with fresh ricotta, house-made Italian sausage, kale, Maui onions and vine-ripened tomatoes also gets our attention; so does a salad of local greens, beets and goat cheese. The server is attentive, even in the heat of the day, explaining each dish with knowledgeable confidence.
Our lunch arrives, and we ooh and ahh as the plates are set before us. We dig into the lobster pizza and, yes, Charles did not lead us astray. The sweet lobster, sustainably raised on Hawai‘i Island, is a delicious treat. The ricotta-dappled gnocchi tastes of Italy. And the perky citrus-miso dressing on the salad takes me back to Merriman’s Big Island venue, where he first established his niche, offering the finest and freshest ingredients to create the best tasting food.
10 Wailea Gateway Place, Wailea
Open daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Happy hours: 3-5:30 p.m., 9-11 p.m.