Story by Marti Rosenquist | Photography by Nina Kuna
On a small island, the arrival of a newcomer arouses curiosity and speculation. When Hoaloha Na Eha (Hawaiian for “Four Friends”) announced plans to open a restaurant in the former Chez Paul space in Olowalu, tongues were wagging for months.
“I heard they will serve dim sum,” one friend conjectured.
“No, I think it will be a carry-out joint,” another argued.
“Who the heck is Leoda?” asked a third.
The mystery was settled one day in November, when, after months of renovation, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop opened just in time to put pies on Maui’s Thanksgiving tables.
“You have to go!” my friend posted on Facebook, as if reporting the news story of the year. “Order the fried salad.”
That didn’t sound like a promising replacement for Chez Paul’s fancy French cuisine, but given Hoaloha Na Eha’s other dining successes (Old Lahaina Luau, Star Noodle and Aloha Mixed Plate), I was willing to give Leoda’s the benefit of the doubt—especially with Chef Sheldon Simeon at the helm. His first year running Star Noodle, Simeon was nominated for a James Beard Award in the Rising Star Chef category. In 2011, his peers voted Simeon the Aipono Awards’ Chef of the Year.
In contrast to the well-worn roadside bistro that came before it, Leoda’s has been transformed into a freshly painted, plantation-style house sporting nifty signage. The front porch, decorated with inviting wooden chairs, is dappled with the sunlight that slips through Olowalu’s famed monkeypod trees; it’s an ideal spot to sit a spell and talk story.
Wildflowers in mason jars grace the tables. Colorfully painted barn boards line the wall near the kitchen. Plank dining tables, repurposed from the deck of an old barge that formerly plied the waters around Maui, recall a simpler time when tender-crusted pastries were the reward for work well done.
Pies take center stage in this restaurant, ranging from petite, single-serving tarts topped with dollops of whipped cream and chocolate shavings, to full-sized, party-worthy centerpieces crowned with mile-high frothy meringue. Leoda’s mantra is “anything you can stuff in a crust”—and they do, savory, sweet or meal-worthy, thanks to a Rheon encrusting machine located at Hoaloha’s 7,767-square-foot culinary facility in Lahaina.
“To make the corn hand pie, we roast Kula-grown corn on an open flame,” Chef Simeon says, “then we remove the kernels and mix them with lime zest, Cotija cheese, chives and cilantro, and stuff it into a buttery herb wrapper.” The machine may do the stuffing, but the chef works magic; the combination produces a savory, sweet, delightful snack.
Chicken potpie, Chef’s signature dish, has never tasted more elegant. Simeon’s version contains tender chicken breast bathed in an elegant veloute, enhanced with peas and carrots and a handful of heart-healthy kale tucked into the tender herb-cheese crust.
Some unexpected items share the spotlight with the usual pies, salads, sandwiches and hamburgers. Among them: Reuben lumpia (corned beef, sauerkraut, cheese and homemade Thousand Island dressing, all wrapped in a wonton skin and deep fried) and fried mac ‘n cheese (scoops of macaroni and cheese prepared with sharp cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and gruyere cheeses, then rolled in light breadcrumbs, plunged into the fryer, and served with Olowalu roasted-tomato marinara dipping sauce).
Who came up with the outrageous idea of deep-frying cheesy balls of pasta? Chef Sheldon takes the credit again, admitting he likes to have fun with food. Though he’s attuned to local tastes, turning out a truly delicious seared ahi sandwich and short-rib pie, he also searches for the new, seeking inspiration in some of the country’s best restaurant cities.
“We love tasting different, amazing flavors on our travels,” agrees Manager Nicky Bostoff. “It’s exciting to get out there and find out what others are doing with food. Fried foods and comfort fare are big trends.”
It turns out my friend was right, after all—Leoda’s fried salad is an exciting departure from the ordinary. Made from the outer leaves of brussels sprouts, fried up sweet, light and crispy, then tossed with burnt-orange vinaigrette, celery leaves, radish and mint, the “salad” tastes more like cotton candy on the tongue. It’s the sort of dish that could turn curiosity seekers into regulars.
Still curious to learn how the owners came up with Leoda’s concept, I sit down one afternoon with one of Hoaloha’s partners, Michael Moore, over a petite banana creme pie.
“First of all, this pie is great!” I proclaim. “But who the heck is Leoda?”
“One of our partners had an aunt named Leoda. To him, she personified an embracing, welcoming image, and since people are seeking comfort in these days, the name paid tribute and also fit our theme,” Moore says.
“We wanted this restaurant to give guests the sense they are walking into their grandma’s kitchen,” he adds, flashing his trademark smile, “by creating an old-fashioned ambiance that fits Olowalu’s sense of place.”
Before it became a way station on the road to Lahaina, Olowalu was a bustling community, the headquarters of the West Maui Sugar Association and Olowalu Plantation. After the industry dissolved, the plantation dispersed, and the only remnants of the town center were a grocery and the restaurant formerly known as Chez Paul.
When the latter closed in 2009, Moore grew concerned that his neighborhood was disappearing.
He recognized an opportunity that could be a win/win, and seized it—just as he did three decades ago, while working as an emcee at a beach party that he and his partners would transform into one of the most popular visitor attractions in Hawaii, Old Lahaina Luau.
“Back then it was BYOB, throw a blanket on the ground, and watch the dancers,” he recalls. “My friends and I had so much fun working at those parties that when the owner threatened to close them down, we scraped together the money and bought the business.” The rest is history.
I ask Moore why he would take a flyer in this economy and launch another restaurant so soon on the heels of Star Noodle, which opened in February 2010.
“I live in this neighborhood and it just seemed like the thing to do,” he replies. “Plus, we are all about creating opportunity.”
As I listen to Moore’s story, the pie disappears from my plate.
“Would you like something to go?” he graciously offers.
“I couldn’t possibly!” I protest weakly.
Beyond the pie case, a baker pulls a tray of golden-crusted bread from the oven and bundles up a loaf for me. The manager adds a chicken potpie “for dinner later” and suggests a corn pie for “the ride home.”
At the stoplight near Launiopoko, it hits me. Leoda’s really is like a visit to your grandma’s. I drive home with the well-fed feeling of contentment that proves it.
(808) 662-3600 | 820 Olowalu Village Road, Lahaina, HI 96761 | www.leodas.com | Daily, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.