Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Blinnk Photography
The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas may be the newest Westin venue at Kā‘anapali Beach Resort, but its culinary management team, helmed by Executive Chef Ikaika Manaku, can boast a collective one hundred years of experience. No wonder the readers of Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi voted the property’s Mauka Makai “Best New Restaurant” at the 2018 ‘Aipono Awards.
My good friend Kay Jackson, a timeshare owner at Westin Nanea, tells me, “I went to the Thursday Fire up the Fun chef demo and it is really entertaining—and such a value! For twenty dollars [twenty-five for nonowners], you get two cocktails, plus two appetizers. And they even give you recipes.”
How could I resist? I arrive at Mauka Makai the following Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The smell of fresh-baked banana bread, butter and vanilla permeates the air. Restaurant staff ready induction burners on the worktable, alongside bowls of sliced bananas. We guests take our seats and chat quietly in anticipation. What I’m not prepared for is such a spirited and informative demo. Food & Beverage director DJ Villa welcomes us warmly, and by the time he introduces Chef Ben “Showtime” Marquez, we guests are relaxed and giggling.
DJ delivers first with a cocktail highlighting Maui’s own Hali‘imaile Distilling Company—specifically its newest addition, Fid Street Gin. “Fid, you may not know, was the word for ‘drink’ during the early years of the whaling industry, and Fid Street was where London dry gin was manufactured. I hope you enjoy the lavender accents in the gin-spiked, sparkling prosecco cocktail that we call ‘Passing Pukalani.’ Our recipe was inspired by the popular cocktail French 75, which is rumored to have the kick of a 75mm French field artillery gun from World War I.”
As I look around the room, the drinks go bottoms up . . . and up goes the volume on the merriment.
Chef Ben introduces his avocado toast: a generous scoop of Kona lobster salad on Portuguese brioche, topped with chive chimichurri, all plated beautifully. Making eye contact with a participant, he teases: “Don’t make that face, fella! It’s going to be amazing! The toast with the most!” Then he adds, “We like to keep the menu as Maui-ingredient-based as possible. We’ve used local avocado, salad greens and microgreens grown within a forty-mile radius.” I gobble mine as quick as a lobster scrambling for refuge in an underwater cave.
As we happily sip our second cocktail, Chef Ben says, “Salt isn’t good for you.” Then he gestures to a different guest. “But you, sir, I bet you get more than your share, even though your doctor has said, ‘No salt!’” The man crosses his arms, laughs and nods an emphatic “yes.” Ben continues, “But food needs salt for flavoring. Not excessive salt. Just enough to enhance the food.” As he launches into a lesson on salty Asian flavorings, salads garnished with tako and arugula are set down in front of us.
“Soy sauce is produced by many companies and there are endless ways to use it, but did you know there are different saltiness levels? Low sodium. High sodium.” A raised arm in the back of the room stops Ben’s elocution.
“What is the difference between shoyu and soy sauce?”
“The spelling,” Ben quips, then continues. “What you have here is a sous vide tako—not the taco you find in Mexican restaurants, but the kind we find in the ocean, a.k.a. octopus. It’s served with Surfing Goat Dairy cheese and a kabayaki soy glaze.”
DJ’s turn. He launches into a description of his next cocktail creation: “Rum-Chata,” a takeoff on the Mexican rice drink horchata. Refreshingly light with a hint of nuttiness from macadamia kernels, the drink pairs well with the tako salad. As we eat, I watch as Chef Kirk Areola puts a heaping spoonful of butter into the sauté pan. As it melts, Ben introduces a surprise third dish. “I hate to measure ingredients. I’m a cook, not a baker. Anyway, my pastry chef made these banana bread loaves for us and I was so happy when I came in today to find them in the fridge!” Kirk caramelizes sugar in the butter and Ben proclaims, “Bananas Foster. How many of you like bananas?” As arms fly up, he says, “We’re going to layer Koloa Rum-flambéed apple bananas on a slice of this wonderful bread and top it with Lappert’s coconut ice cream that’s churned especially for Mauka Makai Restaurant.” Happy sighs echo throughout the room as we dip into the decadently delicious dessert. This, I decide, is a bowl of heaven. My poor friend Kay: having introduced me to this “tasting demo + cocktails,” she’s really missing out tonight.
As I contemplate what other culinary adventures Mauka Makai might have to offer, DJ apparently reads my mind. He begins to describe Sunday brunch: king crab legs, juicy prime rib, plus mimosas, “beermosas” and live entertainment. Then Friday night’s Pā‘ina Buffet: local favorites like poke, chicken katsu, banana-leaf-steamed catch. . . . I’m sold! I’ll be back soon.
Courtesy of Mauka Makai’s DJ Villa
Yield: 1 cocktail
In a champagne flute add:
- 1 1/4 oz. Fid Street Gin
- 1/2 oz. homemade lavender simple syrup
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp. zest of lemon
Top off glass with Zardetto Prosecco; garnish with lemon zest.
- 6 c. sugar
- 2 c. water
- 1 bunch (12 oz.) culinary lavender*
Procedure: Bring all ingredients to a simmer. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature. Strain and refrigerate until needed.
* DJ uses Ali‘i Kula Lavender for his house-made simple syrup. Available at Ali‘i Kula Lavender, 1100 Waipoli Road, Kula, HI 96790 | 808-878-3004 | AliiKulaLavender.com/culinary.
DJ’s Rum-Chata Recipe
- 1 c. Jasmine rice
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 whole star anise
- 2/3 c. sugar
- ½ c. chopped macadamia nuts
- 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
- 12 oz. evaporated milk
- 1½ c. milk or almond milk
- 1 L. filtered water