Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography Nina Lee
2009 Restaurant of the Year (Gold)
Best Wine List (Gold)
Best Seafood (Silver)
As the sun sets, the indescribable misty light that’s characteristic of Kapalua fills the dining room at this year’s Restaurant of the Year, Pineapple Grill. Panoramic mountain and ocean views provide a backdrop for family-style round tables and intimate tables for two. Just beyond the foyer, Chef Ryan Luckey smiles at regulars passing by his open kitchen.
Hardly breaking a sweat on the hot line, the easy- going chef makes whipping up dinner for 120 look effortless—or at least like it’s a lot of fun. Hawaiian Hospitality recently named Luckey one of Hawai‘i’s “Top Young Chefs to Watch,” for turning out consistent, creative cuisine. His inventive dishes such as pistachio-crusted ‘ahi and Thai curry scallops have earned him a loyal following. And fans, says the chef, can be protective over their favorite dishes.
“If I were to take the lobster bisque off the menu, there might be anarchy,” laughs Chef Luckey. “The short ribs are the same way.”
It pays to have some home runs on the menu. Recently, when Pineapple Grill was invited to enter a Maui Gold pineapple-cooking contest, Chef Luckey wasn’t given enough notice to invent a special recipe. He simply made the restaurant’s standard pineapple upside-down cake. Nothing fancy—just an irresistible blend of pineapple, dark rum-caramel sauce, Roselani macadamia-nut ice cream and toasted coconut. It won.
The restaurant’s wine program has been busy collecting awards of its own, including a third ‘Aipono this year for “Best Wine List.” Managing partner Chris Kaiwi stocks the fancy, temperature-controlled wine room and twenty-four-spigot cruvinet system with wines that are both affordable and food-friendly. I watched him in action at a recent ‘Aipono Winemaker’s Dinner. He worked with Luckey to adapt the chef’s spiced chocolate cake to the evening’s dessert wine. Both were decidedly delicious, but according to Kaiwi, just a hint of orange would’ve drawn them together better. Kaiwi applies that attention to detail to the restaurant’s overall management.
Business has grown each year since the restaurant’s opening in 2005. “We’re still generating buzz,” says Luckey, referring to several ongoing promotions, such as Wine Wednesdays, when selected bottles are 50 percent off. “We’re lucky. We just haven’t felt the massive falloff that other restaurants have. We’ve been really steady.”
After winning silver for two consecutive years, Pineapple Grill finally captured the ‘Aipono gold. At just four years old, it’s still a relative newcomer—considering the company it keeps. Last year’s winner, Mama’s Fish House, has been wowing diners for thirty years; runner-up Lahaina Grill for seventeen. Just how did this Kapalua upstart earn its golden reputation? A simple mix: a great location, a talented young chef, and a dynamic management team.
Best Pizza (Gold)
Best Place to Dine with Kids (Gold)
Flatbread packed the house from day one. Its lively, inviting atmosphere and wholesome, affordable food are huge draws for both families and the windsurfing elite on Maui’s North Shore.
In full view, the kitchen staff operates like a sports team: the stretcher tosses and shapes the dough, the assembler piles on the organic veggies and nitrate-free sausage, and the baker retrieves the crisp flatbreads from the roaring fire. Typically, the baker wears something outlandish—striped socks at the least—befitting of a bohemian fire-tender.
Kids who aren’t standing agog watching the fire are decorating menu covers with quirky, colorful testimony, “I ? Flatbread” and “Eggplants, not Implants.”
Flatbread is part of an eight-restaurant chain with roots in Massachusetts, but the lone Hawai‘i recruit has firmly established itself with the locals. Every Tuesday, Flatbread donates $3.50 per large flatbread to an island charity and invites community organizations to host silent auctions alongside the restaurant’s busy bar. Groups have raised as much as $3,000 in an evening.
Community involvement and organic, locally sourced ingredients are fundamental to Flatbread’s philosophy, says restaurant manager Jenna Haugaard.
When Upcountry farmers call with a surplus of blue potatoes, Haugaard crafts a special to accommodate them, such as the “Potato Dream”—a savory flatbread with thin-sliced potatoes, spinach, roasted garlic, fontina cheese and rosemary cream sauce. In turn, she asks farmers to grow more of what Flatbread needs daily, such as carrots for the tasty house salad sprinkled with arame seaweed and local goat cheese.
“People are trusting us to feed them, so the food might as well be amazing,” says Haugaard. “We put love into it.”
Love must beget love, because Flatbread has acquired quite a fan base. “We have a strong resident clientele. We’re not going anywhere.”
Mala Wailea | Mala Ocean Tavern
Best Kept Secret (Gold)
Best Vegetarian (Gold)
When well-known chef/restaurateur Mark Ellman opened Mala Ocean Tavern on the West Side, foodies nationwide took notice. Food & Wine praised the “Maui maverick’s” globally inspired dishes. Condé Nast included the tiny oceanfront restaurant, with its view of turtles playing in the surf, in “14 Perfect Days in Hawaii.” MNKO readers voted it “Best New Restaurant,” “Best Vegetarian” and “Most Innovative.” Celebrity patrons Alice Cooper and Shep Gordon liked the restaurant so much, they invested in a second incarnation, Mala Wailea.
In comparison to the original Mala, the new restaurant is spacious and spread out, with a separate lounge adjoining the Marriott Wailea’s gracious lobby. Rich, sumptuous colors adorn the walls. Red glass tiki torches light the lanai, and there’s a private dining room for special occasions.
Both restaurants feature the same winning cuisine: an eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Indonesian, and New American influences. The left half of the menu at Mala Ocean Tavern changes daily, while Mala Wailea caters to the resort crowd with a $39 prix fixe menu. Entrées such as the whole wok-fried fish and Kobe beef burger slathered in Maytag blue cheese and applewood-smoked bacon keep guests coming back for more. Each of Mala’s $9 vegetable sides—from the baked butternut squash to the sambal-spiced snap peas—is good enough to make a meal out of. The brussel sprouts, dressed in ginger and shoyu, are crunchy morsels of sweet, spicy goodness.
A twenty-four-year veteran of the restaurant business, Ellman says he develops recipes through “really rigid research and development”—in other words, he regularly dines out in culinary hot spots, like New York and San Francisco. “I serve things that my wife and I cook at home, like the brussel sprouts. They went on the menu because we just love them.”
The secret to success, says Ellman, is “honesty. You give an honest product. Whether you charge $4 or $40, you put value on the plate.”
Best New Restaurant (Silver)
Best Late Night Dining (Silver)
Wokstar is a small burst of creative energy along South Kïhei Road. A prime destination for a satisfying snack after hitting the beach or the nightclub, it opens early and closes late. In this year’s ‘Aipono Awards, Kïhei’s new go-to spot surrendered the gold for “Best New Restaurant” to Merriman’s by a just handful of votes—pretty impressive for a restaurant that’s hardly more than a few shaded picnic tables and a thimble-sized kitchen.
At Wokstar, it’s a case of quality over quantity. The Southeast Asian-inspired soups, salads, noodles, and rice dishes are made to order, brimming with hearty vegetables and house-made sauces.
“Our sauces are made daily from scratch,” says Sarah Gray, one of the restaurant’s two owners. “We don’t have a giant freezer where we store everything until we throw it into a deep-fat fryer. We buy everything fresh.”
New to many Maui diners are the menu’s jaffels, or Aussie-style pressed sandwiches. For breakfast, the veggie jaffel is stuffed with scrambled eggs, vegetables and cheese on locally baked wheat bread. For dessert, banana jaffels are enticingly warm and gooey: peanut butter, honey and bananas melted between toasted slices of Hawaiian sweet bread.
Gray, a first-time restaurant owner, had originally envisioned something more formal, but when this location opened up, she got “a green light all the way.” She and her co-owner, California-based realtor Mark Musante, decided “to make the most of the environment, rather than trying to force something.” When they landed on the dynamite name, they knew they had a winner. “We thought this would be a pilot and we would expand—maybe even beyond Hawai‘i.”
How does it feel now that Wokstar has celebrated its first anniversary? “It’s been really fun,” says Gray. “Well, the first six to eight months, maybe not. But the overall return on the energetic investment has been great. We don’t get many complainers.”
UPDATE: THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED.