From Sea to Shining Sea

Mark Ellman's Honu is a bicoastal seafood experience.

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Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Nina Kuna

honu-food-maui

A sun-drenched, blissful ease permeates Mark Ellman’s new restaurant, Honu Seafood and Pizza. Witnessed from the open-air dining room, every burnished-copper sunset aims to be more glorious than the last. The islands of Lanai and Molokai linger on the horizon like sleeping giants while the gentle tide nearly washes the feet of those seated at the oceanfront tables. Green sea turtles—for whom the restaurant is named—crowd the shore break, nibbling sea vegetables in full view.

honu restaurantWith a location this mesmerizing, it almost doesn’t matter how good the food is. But Ellman, a decorated veteran of Maui’s restaurant scene, knows how to please, and the menu at Honu promises to match the excellence of its environment. While Honu hadn’t officially opened by the time this issue went to press, we were able to take a peek at the new kitchen and chat with its owner.

Over the years, Ellman has zeroed in on what’s missing in Maui’s culinary mix and stepped in to fill the void. In 1988, he was among the first to elevate dining out on Maui from a contact sport (shuffling in a buffet-line scrum) to a fine art (with linens, sophisticated plate-ups, and daring demi-glace).

Ellman championed locally sourced produce at his original and much-lauded restaurant, Avalon, formerly in Lahaina. As one of the twelve Hawaii Regional Cuisine pioneers, he helped put the Islands on the gourmet map. Later, the savvy restaurateur launched Maui Taco, a chain of health-conscious fast-food Mexican restaurants, and in 2001, he gave West Siders Penne Pasta, an affordable, family-style Italian eatery. Most recently he opened Mala Ocean Tavern in Lahaina, and Mala Wailea at the Wailea Marriott Beach Resort, to rave reviews. Both are perennial Aipono Award-winners, sating diners’ hunger for pub food that’s simple, nutritious, and packed with flavor.

honu-restaurantNow Ellman seeks to satisfy yet another craving that many Maui residents can’t shake—especially those transplanted East Coasters among us. Honu is a Maui-fied version of a quintessential New England seafood shack.

Think golden fried Ipswich clams, mussels, and squid, tender steamer clams, bulging lobster and crab rolls, and shrimp cocktail. During happy hour at Honu, a fishmonger will shuck fresh oysters at the bar. If you’ve ever spent a languorous summer along the eastern seaboard, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find some of the Atlantic’s treasures dished up here in the Pacific.

Ellman’s longtime fans might balk at this seeming betrayal—a return to foreign imports. But the chef says he wants to offer Maui diners a fresh concept, something they’d otherwise have to fly for hours to experience. And anyway, he hasn’t entirely abandoned his local roots. Before drafting his new menu, Ellman personally toured seven Maui farms. He designed one dish especially to highlight Lahaina farmer James Simpliciano’s green peppercorns and pandan leaves, used in Malaysian and Vietnamese cuisines. Pomegranates and allspice from Evonuk Farm in Kula have also found honored spots on the menu.
honu-restaurant-mauiDiners at Honu can live vicariously, experiencing Chef Ellman’s extensive travels through a sampling of some of his more exotic dishes. The globetrotting gourmet brought back a braised-beef-brisket-noodle recipe from Taipei, a pork bun from the night market in Kuala Lumpur, and—near to this writer’s heart—fresh Indonesian sambal that’s made in house. A staple in Southeast Asia, the fiery chili paste adds rocket fuel to rice or soup.

Middle Eastern spices—cloves, cardamom, and orange flower water—flavor savory dishes and desserts. Locals will delight in a rare specialty: fried pig’s ear served with fried lavender.

Considering the hedonistic deliciousness of the adult mac and cheese served next door at Mala, we can hardly wait to sample Ellman’s new version, with crab, cheddar and roasted green chili—or the grits with mascarpone and Parmesan.

As if all that weren’t enough, the kitchen will also turn out bona fide Naples-style pies.

According to Ellman, a true Neapolitan pizza requires three pedigreed ingredients: fresh mozzarella, Caputo “00” flour (the finest grind), and canned San Marzano tomatoes (reputedly sweeter than their cousins from Roma). The last two must come direct from Italy.

Margherita pizzas will be expertly crisped in a snazzy oven that reaches 700 degrees. Back in the kitchen, Chef Ellman can’t help showing off this new toy—a shiny silver appliance with the requisite brick-tiled interior. “It’s like a little Ferrari,” he says, and it’s likely to be kept revving all night long.

Chef Keoki McGee is the appointed master of the kitchen’s stainless steel glory. Hailing from Mama’s Fish House and the Hotel Hana-Maui, McGee is more than capable of handling the diverse menu and the rush of customers that greeted the restaurant’s grand opening this August.

“He was just waiting for a venue to strut his stuff,” says Ellman. And Honu is a venue to be envied, for sure.

When the surf shop next door to Mala Ocean Tavern closed its doors, the property owners offered the lease to Ellman, who jumped at the opportunity. He hired local designers to transform the funky retail space into an elegant eatery. They replaced the ocean-facing walls with retractable doors—showcasing the outstanding views. The custom-made countertops and tables are handsome and eco-friendly, made from reclaimed sorghum straw. The ceiling’s whitewashed beams make the space feel twice as spacious.

Bali quartz, bleached seashells, and river stones accent the bar, where those seeking pau hana refreshment can choose from fifty beers. The wine list leans heavily towards organic and biodynamic vineyards, and vintages that pair well with fish. The cocktail menu reflects an ample supply of high-end tequilas, rums, and scotches.

“I would’ve been really mad if someone else opened a restaurant here,” Ellman laughs. Now that we’ve had a preview of Honu, we would be, too.

Honu Seafood and Pizza
1295 Front Street, Lahaina
(808) 667-9390 | www.honu-maui.com

Readers, digest!

In addition to his numerous restaurant ventures, Ellman has more than dipped his toe into the business of publishing. Maui Taco and Mala cookbooks can be purchased at his restaurants. (We look forward to the Honu edition.) With coauthor Barbara Santos, Ellman recently released Practice Aloha,  a lovely compilation of stories exploring the special quality of life enjoyed here in Hawaii. Next time you’re in traffic, look closely at the car in front of you and you’re likely to see a Practice Aloha sticker decorating the bumper.

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