Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Kent Hwang, Nina Kuna & Tracy Kraft Leboe
When I was a kid growing up in Hilo, my eighty-five-year-old grandfather was head of the household. He was from Japan, so dinner oftentimes consisted of crispy fried fish, miso soup, sticky white rice, salted cabbage and green tea. As we dined on Japanese food, Filipino families ate chicken adobo, peas with pork, and squid sabao — a soup strongly flavored with ginger, garlic and fish sauce. Portuguese families baked bread rich with butter and eggs, which they served alongside spicy linguisa-bean soup, and salads of dried codfish, tomato, and watercress. Puerto Rican families grated green bananas to make pasteles, a pork- and achiote-filled steamed tamale eaten with pigeon-pea rice colored red from the seeds of the lipstick tree. It was a time when traditional dishes were . . . traditional. There was no experimentation. No multiethnic culinary shenanigans.
Times have changed, and while some restaurants on Maui hold true to traditional cuisines, many others have embraced mixing and marrying flavors from the Americas, Japan, Hawai‘i, Europe and Southeast Asia. And that suits our readers just fine. Here are four of the restaurants you picked as among the best in our 2014 Aipono Restaurant Awards.
Gold ʻAipono for Restaurant of the Year
In 1990, one year before Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine began attracting the attention of national food critics to the Islands, Jurg Munch, chef/owner of Lahaina Grill, made his own culinary history: using Kona coffee as a dry rub and sauce for roasted rack of lamb. Nearly a quarter-century later, that dish and others such as tequila shrimp, aged bone-in prime rib, and a classic pan-roasted mahimahi with chardonnay beurre blanc sauce, keep drawing crowds of diners to the intimate, special-occasion restaurant.
Although Munch humbly denies being a trendsetter, Lahaina Grill continues to innovate, most recently by adopting the Coravin System, which allows the restaurant to pour fine wines by the glass without disturbing the whole bottle. “The cork stays in place and keeps oxygen out,” says Munch. “You pour a glass through a small needle, and the cork reseals itself.
“We have made a commitment to keep our wine list at the top. Richard Olsen III, our sommelier, travels to wine regions all over the world . . . to acquire wines for our list. Every month he features five or six wineries, educating our guests on what makes these wines special.”
Let your dinner partner choose sweet corn soup with jalapeno chili, while you feast on Hawaiian seared ahi with tamari ginger vinaigrette, and Olsen will find the perfect wine for each of you to enjoy by the glass.
With that kind of dedication to its patrons, it’s no wonder Lahaina Grill garnered the Gold as 2014 Restaurant of the Year. Since 2008, the restaurant has earned eighteen Gold and Silver ‘Aipono Awards, in categories from Best Wine List and Best Service, to Best Steak and Best Dessert.
Silver ʻAipono for Restaurant of the Year
Enter the cool chic of Spago in the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea, and you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself a rock star. It’s not just the ambiance, nor the impeccable service that begins the moment your hostess greets you. It’s the way Spago steps up to the plate in meeting the culinary desires of its guests — for example, by including an abundant selection of vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian offerings. And while you’re not likely to confuse Spago with the typical health-food restaurant, farm-to-table freshness has driven the menu since Wolfgang Puck’s original restaurant opened in Los Angeles in 2001.
For Chef de Cuisine Cameron Lewark, that means letting local and seasonal fare guide the kitchen. His Kula asparagus risotto with aged Parmesan cheese could make anyone a happy vegetarian. Avoiding gluten? Try the caramelized pork chop with sweet corn and vanilla-ginger apples with brand-mustard sauce. The rest of us can still enjoy old favorites like crunchy sesame-miso cones with spicy ahi tuna poke, and grilled cote de bouef with braised celery and cheese pommes aligot.
Since 2003 — when Spago captured the Gold as Best New Restaurant — its fifteen Gold and Silver ‘Aipono wins have celebrated the restaurant’s service and innovative menu.
Gold ʻAipono for Best New Restaurant
The management at the new Andaz Maui at Wailea made two great culinary decisions: Executive Chef Brent Martin and Chef de Cuisine Isaac Bancaco. While the chefs come from different hemispheres — Martin a native of New Zealand, and Bancaco Maui born and raised — they share a passion to create food for the millennium using locally sourced ingredients.
Clad in friendly blue palaka shirts, chefs and waitstaff move in an effortless choreography around the sleek, brightly lit, open kitchen that is surrounded on all sides by Ka‘ana’s dining room. Enter the restaurant, and a bartender greets you with a smile at the standup bar, happy to build you a jalapeno-infused tequila lime cocktail with a splash of fresh pineapple juice — or whatever other concoction suits you.
Small tasting plates are a mainstay of Ka‘ana Kitchen, but larger appetites can enjoy entrees such as rib eye with potato confit, bacon, Pommery mustard and abalone mushrooms; or a takeoff on chicken and waffles, Maui style, with crispy fried Makawao chicken, Portuguese malasadas and Asian slaw. Such island flavors are no accident; Bancaco is diligent about sourcing locally, as in his seared ahi with burrata, Ha‘iku heirloom mushrooms and a green-apple gelee atop a creamy white balsamic liliko‘i; or his fork-tender grilled octopus with baby frisee greens, and Surfing Goat Dairy’s “Secret Sicily” cheese garnished with pan-fried crunchy-chewy bread salad.
Often you’ll find both head chefs in the kitchen. As Bancaco calls orders to the line cooks, Martin’s Kiwi eyes are everywhere, ensuring a positive dining experience for guests — and an ‘Aipono Gold for Ka‘ana Kitchen.
Silver ʻAipono for Best New Restaurant
When a little store in Ha‘iku came up for sale last year, Moon Greene “jumped at the chance to buy it.” A co-owner of Pa‘ia Fish Market Restaurant, Greene is better known as one of the folks who create the fresh fish tacos that have hungry beachgoers lining up all the way out the door. These days, diners line up outside of Nuka for dishes prepared by sushi chef Hiro Takanashi.
“I’d been following Chef Hiro all over Maui to eat his food,” says Greene, “Harry’s Sushi Bar, Jacques’ Restaurant. . . . I wanted to build an izakaya for him, and also selfishly wanted a restaurant where I could eat all my favorite foods.”
Blink, and you might miss Nuka, tucked as it is between a country post office and a renovated 1940s juice-canning facility. Enter through the wide wooden front door, and you’re greeted by a stylish decor with slatted ceilings, and walls hung with gyotaku (Japanese fish prints). Izakaya restaurants are drinking establishments, too, and Nuka stocks a generous selection of beer, sake and shochucocktails, which pair deliciously with appetizer plates of baked scallops with creamy “dynamite” sauce, Asian fries with furikake and wasabi aioli, crunchy gobo (burdock root) chips, and seared beef tatakiwith ponzu sauce. Sashimi platters with the freshest fish — sometimes caught that day by fisherman and co-owner DeWitt Lickle — may be the best you’ve ever consumed.
Nuka’s Silver Best New Restaurant is its first ‘Aipono Award. We’re betting it won’t be the last.
Our thanks to everyone who voted in this year’s ‘Aipono Restaurant Awards. Check out all the winners here — and happy eating!