Story by Becky Speere
It’s easy to forget in all the bustle that a resort town is actually home to many people, especially those in the service industry. Over the years, I have come to know dozens of managers, chefs and servers who were born and raised here, and who are now busy raising their own children on Maui. Long-standing restaurants blessed with loyal employees and patrons provide all with a sense of community; these are places where everybody does indeed know your name. So when Lahaina Grill, the 2020 ‘Aipono Awards’ Restaurant of the Year, reopened its doors in March 2022 after a full year of closure, I felt the pull of reconnection.
I needed a break from our four-acre farm, from planting and harvesting and beating back the ever-pressing forest. I needed a return to normal and was craving that sense of belonging that I’d been missing. When my husband, Chris, and I were planning our anniversary celebration, I immediately suggested a Lahaina staycation.
When we arrive in the lobby at Hotel Lahaina to check in, Avie de Asis greets us from behind the desk with warmth and aloha.
“Welcome to our boutique hotel!” she says. “So happy you chose to stay with us.” She launches into an account of the amenities, which include a gleaming Nespresso coffee maker on the bar. “Self-service espresso is available all day and night,” she says.
We head to our suite and enter a clean, white room. The plush bed is outfitted with a Timorese Alola Fair coverlet, throw pillows and bed runner. A cropped image of “The Tree of Life” by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt conceals a flat-screen TV, and directly opposite, two deep lounge chairs with matching ottomans complete a mini movie theater cocoon. A door opens to a balcony that overlooks Lahainaluna Road at one end and the ocean at the other. All in all, the room is even more inviting than the last time we stayed here, some three years prior. And as I sink into a lounge chair, I wonder if two nights will be long enough!
At 5 p.m., we head to the Lahaina Grill. Thankfully, we made reservations months before; the room is already half-filled with diners. We recognize longtime restaurant manager Brittany Gymrek, and when she greets us, it feels like a homecoming.
We sit at our table and sommelier and head waiter Richard Olson immediately serves us champagne Domaine Jean Vesselle and an amuse-bouche — a farm-fresh Maui deviled egg with a generous spoonful of Ossetra caviar balanced on top. Bubbles and brine dance and intermingle on our tongues.
Next, Olson arrives with a golden seared scallop topped with Hua Momona Farms red-veined amaranth and sweet sunflower microgreens. It rests on a bed of potato-celeriac puree and is surrounded with beurre blanc and a drizzle of lime-green scallion oil. I take a bite and recognize the masterful touch of chef Arnulfo “Arnie” Gonzalez in the delicate layering of the flavors. A fruit-forward De Chanceny Crémant de Loire Rosé pairs perfectly with the dish, and as we put down our forks, owner Jurg Munch stops by to say hello.
When we compliment him on the room remodel, Munch smiles and nods. “Yes, we painted and upgraded the rooms, and are using original Southeast Asian tribal-art textile linens,” he says. “The rooms and lobby also feature paintings by a new artist, Aloha De Mele.”
“I noticed her puakenikeni lei piece in the lobby,” I say. “And chef Arnie hasn’t skipped a beat in the kitchen! Everything is amazing.”
Olson arrives with our next course: an H. Forman & Son truffle-smoked wild salmon served with a warm, creamy-crisp Maui onion-and-potato cake. A swirl of balsamic reduction, chive oil and crème fraiche adds a tart richness to the dish. To accompany, Olson recommends an Albert Bichot French Chablis, and as I sip, I taste highlights of lemon zest and green apple. We polish off every last bit and Olson clears our empty plates.
He returns shortly with a 2017 Chateau Laribotte Sauternes from the Bordeaux region, which rings of apricots, honey and ginger, and sets down our next course — my favorite: seared sashimi-grade ‘ahi and Hudson Valley foie gras on a bed of sun-ripened fig compote, fresh sauteed spinach with a hint of truffle oil, and a Maui-onion demi-glace. My heart sings with each bite.
Munch orders us a wild arugula salad with oven-roasted beets as an intermezzo to cleanse our palates. Aged balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and candied pecans enhance the sweetness of the beets, a sublime pause between courses.
Then our entree arrives: a corn-finished Omaha Black Angus New York cut steak cooked to a perfect medium-rare, with buttery scalloped potatoes, a side of tender ali‘i (king oyster) mushrooms and a whirl of cabernet demi-glace. Olson pairs the dish with a 2017 cabernet sauvignon from Neal Family Vineyards. Its smooth tannins and hints of cassis and roasted cacao make it the perfect foil to the hearty entree.
There is no better way to end a Lahaina Grill meal than with a dessert … or, in our case, six! A tray full of decadent delights turns heads as the server moves through the dining room and places a half-dozen treats on our table. They are almost too beautiful to eat, almost — beauty be damned, we devour them and then head up to our room, sated and smiling.
The next morning, we awake to the sounds of Lahaina Town preparing for the day — delivery trucks grind by, street cleaners swish-swish the night away, and cafés clatter with a cacophony of silverware and ceramic plates. The disquietude is not unwelcome; rather, it transports me back in time to my 30s and 40s, when I visited Florence, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok and other far-flung places. I’m wistful as I hug my pillow and fall back to sleep.
After a lovely day of lounging, we head back to the Lahaina Grill for a light dinner at the bar. Annabehl Sinclair-Delaney, the Grill’s veteran bartender of 25 years, recognizes us as we sit down.
“Welcome back!” she says with genuine warmth as she shakes our hands. “It’s been a long time.”
We shrug off the heat with a cool Guavalajara tequila cocktail and a Bee Sting made with Empress gin and lavender honey. We order two appetizers that Jurg recommended the evening before: escargot served traditionally in herbs and butter, and fresh sauteed Manila clams. As we share the dish, Sinclair-Delany pours two glasses of a bright, lemony 2018 Planeta Chardonnay. The wine accentuates the salty zing of the fat Manila clams, and the slices of sweet lap cheong (Chinese pork sausage), tomatoes and herbaceous parsley in the broth.
Our escargot are tucked into bed alongside garlic- and butter-braised button mushrooms. With over-the-top richness and the slightest hint of curry, the dish begs for a glass of smoky Wagner Stempel Pinot Blanc.
For dessert, we share a Key Lime Pie cocktail rimmed with graham cracker crumbs and a dense, flourless chocolate cake topped with coffee ice cream.
It’s our final evening, and back in our room we embrace on the balcony and look out over the ocean, reflecting on our two bliss-filled days of dining and dreaming and seeing old friends. The world is right-side up once more, and for this, we are thankful.