A Maui Wowee Food Scene

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 18, 2005
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Chef Rick Pearson and Sean Christensen
from Pacific ‘O and I‘o on Maui

I traveled to Maui last weekend for a much-needed look at the restaurant scene and to be a part of the Maui Onion Festival. I found the security lines frustrating, lost baggage an annoyance and the price of a condo on the beach more than some people pay for their mortgage, but I’m happy to report that the restaurant scene is alive and kicking.

Maui has always had a pretty lively food scene, and certainly the relationships between farmers and chefs have been wellnurtured over the past 10 years or more.

Peter Merriman (in partnership with TS Restaurants) has Hula Grill at Whaler’s Village, and it serves some of Maui’s finest, freshest produce. In the kitchen, the immensely likeable Bobby Masters puts together locally grown ingredients with style and easy flair. The menu reads like a “made in Hawaii” grocery list, with Kula veggies, Mauna Kea goat cheese, hearts of palm, upcountry greens, Hamakua mushrooms, local tomatoes, green beans, sugar snap peas and of course, Maui onions.

Close by, in Lahaina Town, Mark Ellman continues to rule the roost with restaurants that are family-oriented and fun, serving really great food. A fairly new addition to his group, Penne Pasta, is well worth a visit. We took the whole family (finding the perfect place for a hungry sportscaster, a foodwriter, a toddler and a 12-weekold baby is not the easiest assignment on the planet), and it was perfect. The sauces are light and reminiscent of a true Italian café — with great puttanesca, pomodoro, Bolognaise and a signature baked penne. Nightly dinner specials include fresh fish. With nothing on the menu over $14 he proves, yet again, that great dining can be done inexpensively. Not a message that has reached many others on Maui. Ellman continues to prove that he has a handle on what people really want to eat — and that he can cook. Providing a bit more ambience and tapas style dining, Ma La created quite a buzz when it opened last October. On the beach at 1307 Front Street, Ellman has created a piece of ocean paradise where organic ingredients rule and little plates are made for sharing.

Down the street, the sometimes eccentric, always talented James McDonald is in pursuit of self-sufficiency. His restaurants, I‘o and Pacific ‘O, now use ingredients grown on their own farm. Chefs travel once or twice a week to O‘o farm to pick inseason ingredients. I spent some time with sous chefs Rick Person and Sean Christensen, who could barely hide their enthusiasm for the 8.5-acre Kula property. Home-grown, fresh organic produce, herbs, fruits and vegetables are all grown there. “We even go fishing once in a while and cook up our own catch for the restaurant,” says Rick. Farm tours followed by lunch are offered by appointment for groups of 10 or more.

We stopped at Vino, too (this time without Max and Finn), for some very fine adult dining and inspired wine pairings. This restaurant has, after 18 months or so, found its exceptional groove. Executive Chef Keith Endo won the Maui Onion contest with his short ribs — hopefully a dish we’ll see on the menu at Vino on Oahu before too long.

And a visit to Maui isn’t complete without a stop at the busiest sushi bar in Hawaii. Sansei might do a roaring trade in raw fish, but Thursday and Friday nights its karaoke rocks. Executive Chef Ivan Pahk (who is sporting a new shorn haircut) is also a campaigner for local products. “When we go fishing,” he says, “sometimes only two people touch the fish before the customer. The fishermen and me.”

So I asked Ivan the best thing about living on Maui in times when there are possibly some of the best, most progressive restaurants in the country all packed into one tiny spot.

“That’s easy,” he replied with a grin. “We get Krispy Kreme.” Happy eating!

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