Story by Becky Speere
Five years ago, Japengo opened its doors as the Hyatt Regency Maui’s signature restaurant. It’s been winning awards ever since. In 2012, the readers of Maui No Ka ‘Oi Magazine gave the venue Silver ‘Aipono Awards for Best New Restaurant and Best Sushi. Between 2013 and 2015, Japengo scored two more Silver ‘Aiponos (for Best Seafood and Best Asian Cuisine), and four Gold ‘Aiponos (for Best Sushi and Best Pacific Rim Cuisine).
That doesn’t surprise me. Hyatt’s Executive Chef Greg Grohowski combed O‘ahu’s sushi restaurants, dining at twelve in three days, looking for the best sushi specialist for Japengo. That chef was Jin Hosono, a veteran of the notable Nobu’s Waikiki and Honolulu’s Doraku. He now works with Hyatt’s award-winning Chef de Cuisine Gevin Utrillo; they are the dynamic duo behind the fare at this Pacific Rim restaurant and sushi bar.
Knowing that Japengo’s stellar kitchen staff thrives on taste and innovation, my daughter Tori and I are delighted when Karli Sullivan, Hyatt’s director of public relations, invites us to join her for pau hana (happy hour) at what has become one of my favorite island restaurants.
As we walk past Japengo’s bar to the covered al fresco dining room, live contemporary Hawaiian music fills the air, captivating some revelers, while others are engaged in deep conversation, sipping tropical libations and nibbling savory appetizers. Karli says, “I was planning on having a cocktail in the bar, but it doesn’t look like there are any seats.” Since the restaurant is located on a rise with expansive views, the change to the dining room doesn’t bother me one iota. As we sit, the setting sun paints the ocean and distant clouds luscious reds and golden yellows reminiscent of a Polynesian fire-dance.
Our server arrives with iced watermelon soju cocktails. The melon, lime, and hydrating coconut-water refreshment puts us in the tasting mood and pairs well with our appetizer: the pinkest hamachi sashimi and local watermelon garnished with lychee pearls, spicy bits of sriracha tempura, and my favorite ponzu sauce. When I mention that my older daughter, Kali, was recently married on Maui, Karli’s face brightens. She tells us that the Hyatt’s newlywed package includes a fun demonstration on preparing poke (pronounced poh-KAY), the raw-fish dish that has captured the savory appetites of visitors and locals alike.
Matt Rapping, general manager for Japengo, happens by our table and he fills us in on the newlywed package. “Chef has all of the ingredients prepped prior to the [demonstration]. He gives a brief description of poke and its origin at lu‘au, where Hawaiians used the bounty of the ocean to celebrate. He also draws parallels to engage the wedded guests, [noting] that all cultures have their own forms of raw product, whether crudo, or carpaccio, or tartar. He then demonstrates the preparation, mixing the locally sourced ingredients together.” Matt adds, “We present the dish on the sushi bar, buffet style, but it’s a play on nachos. Instead of tortilla chips, we serve the poke with taro and sweet potato chips and “edamole” — our version of guacamole, made with pureed edamame [soy beans]. The edamole is garnished with Maui Surfing Goat cheese, pico de gallo, and two types of tobiko, regular and wasabi flavored. Guests dive in and build their own Pacific Rim nachos!” This sounds like a fun experience for newlyweds; we vow to share the information with our friends.
As Matt departs, I notice a dozen diners in a private area defined by a karesanui (rock garden). Karli tells us that guests can request the space for a party of up to twenty people. I’ll have to take this info back to the office and suggest it for our next employee-appreciation dinner.
Our entrees arrive, bringing a pause to our conversation as admire the artistry of the platings. Chef Gevin and Chef Jin have outdone themselves. My first bite is Chef Jin’s delicately flavored sushi rice wrapped in tender yellow yuba (paper-thin sheets of soybean curd). It’s balanced — like a good marriage — with a generous filling of unagi, crab and avocado slices. Garnished with kabayaki sauce and a light shichimi-mayo drizzle, the luscious sushi is easily a meal in itself. Tori slices into the tender filet of beef, dipping it into the dark-red plum wine and ginger demi-glace, and savors her first bite. She gives me a “Yes!” smile. Sides of fresh asparagus, cooked al dente, and buttery kim chee edamame mashed potato, get enthusiastic thumbs up.
Karli’s dish — a tower of lobster, Kaua‘i shrimps, scallops and Manila clams on thick udon noodles bathing in a golden tsuyu broth — has me wishing I’d ordered it, too. I make it known that I must taste everything! Each dish is perfectly seasoned. The tsuyu broth, with its rich seafood essence, is as fine as a French bouillabaisse; and the beef filet is cooked to medium-rare perfection. The portions are generous and we almost bow out of dessert, until I remember the flaming creme brulee crowning a grilled, caramelized slice of Maui pineapple and rum-syrup-soaked cake. We surprise ourselves by managing to make the dessert disappear.
The evening has disappeared, too, and we’re sad to have our dining experience at Japengo come to an end. Karli raises our spirits by offering to send us Chef Jin’s recipe for ozoni, a seafood broth traditionally enjoyed during Japanese New Year. Until you can enjoy Japengo for yourself, I’m sharing the recipe with you.
Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa
200 Nohea Kai Drive, Kā‘anapali
808-667-4909 | www.japengomaui.com
Japengo’s award-winning chef de cuisine Gevin Utrillo and sushi chef Jin Hosono are the dynamic duo who create menus with the bold and delicate flavors of Pacific Rim cuisine. Their monthly Maui Tastemakers Series are reasonably priced four- to five-course dinners with select wine or beer pairings.