Story by Becky Speere
The sun sets behind the 60-foot kiawe tree near the water’s edge at Māla Ocean Tavern in Lahaina, casting shadows across the outdoor dining area — long, dusky tentacles creeping across the grass and reaching for our heels. This kiawe is more than 180 years old and the channels and bumps running up and down its gnarled, ancient trunk remind me of the Ents (talking treelike beings) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. My sister, Heidi, and her husband, Troy, who are visiting Maui after a 23-year hiatus, are taken by the majestic tree. Alexandra Vrbanc, our server for the evening, notes their interest.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” says Vrbanc. “It’s one of the oldest kiawe trees on the island. When the outdoor seating area was added, we [at Māla] felt we needed to take care of it, not cut it down.”
We’ve come here to celebrate my family’s long-awaited visit and, of course, to enjoy a meal prepared by 2018 ‘Aipono Chef of the Year Alvin Savella. Savella took over as executive chef for both Māla and Down the Hatch a little over a year ago. Since his debut at Kā‘anapali Ocean Resort’s Pulehu Grill in 2015, I’ve come to trust his uncompromising style and creativity, talents which recently garnered Māla acclaim from Forbes Magazine as one of five businesses to watch in 2022.
We begin the evening with a glass of De Chanceny Cremant de Loire Brut Rosé sparkling wine and a classic Māla appetizer: spice-rubbed seared ‘ahi bruschetta with edamame puree, tomatoes and radish sprouts on rustic seeded crostini. A drizzle of piquant balsamic reduction ties the flavors together perfectly. “Compliments of the chef,” says Vrbanc as she places a bowl of poisson cru on our table. “Lime-marinated mahimahi in coconut milk with fresh Maui avocado, Kula sweet onions and a drizzle of chili oil.” In no time, our foursome has devoured every delicious morsel.
Chef Savella and sous chef Kalei Ducheneau make a personal appearance, bearing a culinary gift of Wagyu miso soup.
“I thought you’d enjoy a little palate cleanser,” Savella says as he prepares the dish tableside. He pours steaming broth into a large bowl over paper-thin slices of marbled beef, tender tofu, long daikon “noodles” and herbaceous shiso (Perilla frutescens), and serves each of us a bowl. We dip again and again with wooden spoons until nothing remains.
Sommelier Sergio Baltazar arrives and uncorks a bottle of 2019 Langhe Nebbiolo Starda.
“Nebbiolo is similar to a pinot grape, but with thinner skin,” he explains. “This is a relatively young wine, but it has a good balance of tannins and berries. I think it will go nicely with your entrees.”
As if summoned by his words, our dinner arrives. We’ve ordered a trio of dishes to share family-style: a slow-braised pork shank in miso-rosemary sauce; a juicy ribeye with peppercorn butter, a warm kale salad and parmesan-truffle fries; and a deep-fried ‘ōpakapaka served whole on a bed of Chinese black-bean fried rice with shredded carrots, green beans, cherry tomatoes, edamame and shiitake mushrooms. Though the pork and ribeye evoke sighs of pleasure around the table, the star is the ‘ōpakapaka, which could easily have fed all four of us. Each bite is a flavorful celebration of textures and tastes.
We consider tapping out for dessert, but before we can concede, Vrbanc arrives with a chocolate-bomb dessert platter in one hand and a butterscotch pot de crème in the other.
“These are our most popular desserts — you have to try them!” she says. We “try” them with gusto, right down to the last crumb of hazelnut croquant on the chocolate mousse.
The kiawe’s inky shadow blends into the darkness, and it’s time to take our leave. We vow to return soon, perhaps this time during the day to enjoy a seaside brunch beneath its venerable canopy of leaves.