Hawaii Part 4: Four Magnificent Meals on Maui

Dessert at Mama's Fish House in Maui is something to remember.

MAUI, HAWAII — You’re probably accustomed to restaurant menus that list the farms where the produce comes from and the ranches that raise the pork and beef starring in the dishes.

But how about a seafood restaurant that lists not only where the fresh fish it serves comes from, but the name of the fisherman who caught it and the method used to land it?

That’s what you’ll find on the menu of Mama’s Fish House in Paia on the north shore of Maui, which has been including that information since it opened 39 years ago. At a time when upscale restaurants on Maui were all steak houses, Vice President Karen Christenson’s parents opened this beach-side restaurant to spotlight seafood because it was cheaper then — and because the fishermen conveniently delivered.

Today, you’ll find descriptions on the menu such as “Deep-water ahi caught by Shawn Boneza trolling the north shore of Maui; seared in ginger and panko crust with kalua pig rice pilaf” ($40) and “Papio caught by David Wallace while adrift over deep sea ledges near Kaupo; upcountry style with caramelized Maui onion, tomato and jasmine rice” ($38).

How’s that to make a dish sound even more enticing?

The beach is right outside the door at Mama's Fish House.

The entrance to the restaurant.

Recently, I had a chance to dine as a guest at four wonderful restaurants on Maui, including Mama’s Fish House, as part of my trip to Hawaii, courtesy of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

They take their fish seriously at Mama’s Fish House, a bustling tropical outpost with dining rooms decorated with outrigger boats and shells, as well as views of sand and palm trees.

Fresh fish that arrived at the restaurant that morning.

The fish come in whole and are cut and stored in a separate room at the restaurant.

Chef Perry Bateman, who has been at the restaurant an astounding 20 years, turns out about 1,000 meals a day. Everything is made from scratch, too.

The fish arrives whole, and are weighed and cut in a separate room at the restaurant, before Bateman works his magic on them. He loves bold flavors, but he also knows when to leave well enough alone with pristine seafood like this.

The kitchen crew at Mama's Fish House.

Vice President Karen Christenson with Chef Perry Bateman.

Among the standouts were ono ceviche, marinated in lime and coconut milk, then served inside a coconut shell; and slow-cooked kalua wild boar caught by hunters in Hawaii’s macadamia nut forests that was tender, complex and totally amazing.

Ono ceviche so good that I couldn't stop eating it.

Tender-as-it-gets Kalua wild boar.

Yup, it's poi.

We had been advised that if we ever wanted to try poi, the Polynesian paste-like staple made from mashed taro, that Mama’s was the place for the freshest tasting version. Poi often gets a bum rap from those not accustomed to it. Like white rice in Chinese cuisine, poi is eaten alongside pretty much everything in Polynesian cultures. At Mama’s, the consistency is that of caramel sauce. It has a not unpleasant beany flavor, kind of like that of an artichoke heart crossed with edamame.

“Uku caught by Patrick Fondren bottom fishing with fresh ika; with lemongrass rice” ($38) brought a plump fillet so very moist, its mild flavor accented with capers, lemon and white wine.

Flavorful uku (snapper) with capers, white wine and lemon.

Short ribs with simple, spectacular local prawns.

Bateman shows a sure hand with meat, too, especially in the fall-off-the-bone short rib with local Hamakua mushrooms ($32). In a version of surf  ‘n’ turf, he served it alongside local prawns that were simply poached to let their incredible sweetness shine through.

Desserts don’t get any more showstopping than the “Polynesian Black Pearl” ($14), a shiny orb of lilikoi chocolate mousse served in a spectacular pastry seashell.

A send-off of haupia.

The meal ends with small squares of haupia, the traditional sweet Hawaiian coconut pudding.

With food this memorable, it’s easy to see why Mama’s Fish House has long been a favorite of locals and tourists alike.

The night before, we dined at a restaurant whose name I can’t even pronounce: Humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

Uh, got that?

Chef de Cuisine Isaac Bancaco, a Maui-native who worked for four years at Blue Ginger in Massachusetts with celeb Chef Ming Tsai, schooled us  in the easy way to pronounce the name of Hawaii’s state fish: It’s “humu-humu-nuku-nuku-a-pooh-ah-ah.” (Yes, there will be a quiz on this at the end of this post.)

The Grand Wilea Resort, which rivals the size of hotel properties in Vegas.

The path to the restaurant, whose name is so hard to pronounce. Just call it "Humu'' like everyone else does.

The restaurant, located at the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa, where we were staying for the night as guests of the property, is a fitting tribute to such an important fish. The thatched-roof, open-air restaurant floats in a million-gallon saltwater lagoon filled with tropical fish and spiny lobster that you can help hand-pick for your dinner.

Live spiny lobsters are kept in a tank at the restaurant, where you can pick your own for dinner.

We enjoyed ours in a velvety spiny lobster bisque redolent of lemongrass and garnished with a plump shu mai dumpling that I could easily have eaten a dozen of.

Spiny lobster bisque.

Seared hamachi with zingy pickled onions.

It was preceded by a lovely seared hamachi, the sweet flesh punched up by pickled red onion and miso-like sake lees, the thick rice paste that’s left over from the making of sake.

Kula Lau’ai ($14) is a simple, satisfying salad of local butter lettuce, Asian pears, candied macadamia nuts, a touch of cheddar and a mustard vinaigrette. Best yet, $1 from each one sold benefits Growing Future Farmers, a Maui chefs initiative to support agriculture projects on Maui. It speaks to Bancaco’s philosophy to use as many local products as possible. When he was hired at the restaurant a year and a half ago, only about 15 percent of the products used at the time were locally grown. Now, he’s brought that up to 65 percent and hopes to keep inching that figure higher.

The salad that benefits a worthy cause.

Wagyu short rib with local hearts of palm.

Spicy corn bread.

His five-hour braised Wagyu beef short ribs ($32) were luscious and arrived with a basket of spicy sambal-laced corn bread.

Dinner concluded with an elaborate looking chocolate mousse and an Okinawan sweet potato cheesecake that was creamy and unique with its subtle lavender hue.

It's a volcano! No, it's actually chocolate mousse.

Another night, we dined at Chef Peter Merriman’s newest and most casual restaurant, Monkeypod. Merriman, who was raised in Pittsburgh, has been making a name for himself since moving to Hawaii in 1983.

It’s a lively restaurant with a large bar that attracts locals and tourists alike. It’s the kind of place that employees from other nearby resorts like to gather after work for good food and drink.

It’s easy to see why. The menu offers everything from burgers to pizza to fresh seafood. And it specializes in “Save Your Fork for Pie” cream pies for dessert.

The raw bar mixed plate at Monkeypod with sesame ahi poke at the forefront.

We shared the raw bar mixed plate ($17.95), which offered tastes of sesame ahi poke, shrimp ceviche and tako poke.

My husband couldn’t resist a bowl of saimin ($11.95), especially when Monkeypod gets its noodles from a nearby mom-and-pop shop that has been making noodles by hand since 1950. The dashi broth had deep flavor, the noodles a lovely spring to them, and the slices of kalua pig were wonderfully juicy.

A warm, nourishing bowl of saimin.

Seared ahi with local mushrooms.

In my quest to eat ahi every day in Hawaii — I pretty much did accomplish that — I enjoyed the seared ahi steak with miso-ponzu sauce that was cooked as it should be — still bright red in the center.

Oh my, oh my -- banana cream pie.

Of course we saved room for a slice of cream pie ($6). In this case, banana cream pie — and an outstanding rendition at that, with long slices of bananas atop the creamy custard filling.

I can’t say that Italian food is the first cuisine that jumps to mind when I think of Hawaii. As a result, I admit I was a bit dubious when the tourism bureau had set up dinner for me at Capische at the Hotel Wailea, where I was staying the night as a guest of the property.

Coming from the Bay Area, where there are fantastic Italian restaurants, I thought, “OK, how good could an Italian restaurant on Maui really be?”

The answer: Quite good.

Chef Christopher Kulis made me a believer with his fresh interpretations of Italian cuisine.

Sunset from the lanai of Hotel Wailea.

A bedroom in a suite at the Hotel Wailea.

The hotel has 72 suites, each complete with a sitting room, bedroom, lanai and kitchenette. The restaurant is located in the circular-shaped main building and features al fresco dining on various levels of terraces. In fact, our table was situated on its own private terrace, making for a quite intimate dinner in near-pitch darkness save for candles and tiki torches. Menu prices are steep. But serving portions are large and the food well executed.

Two dishes, in particular, stood out. The Kauai shrimp carbonara ($41) was a plate full of housemade strozzapreti, thick, long noodle strands, tossed with housemade pancetta, Maui onion, basil and parmesan. The crowning touch was the generous serving of whole, sweet large shrimp atop the pasta. It was a pasta dish that rivaled the best I’ve had in California.

Unbelievably good shrimp carbonara.

A perfect cioppino.

The other dish was the “Capische Cioppino” ($49). Think Kona lobster tail, more of those wonderful Kauai shrimp, clams and local fish in a saffron broth that tasted intensely of shellfish. If that weren’t enough, dig deep into the bowl to find housemade burcatini pasta to soak up all that lovely broth. None of the seafood was overcooked or rubbery — always a tough feat when it comes to making a seafood stew.

Italian food on Maui? Believe it.

Hawaii Part 1: A Visit to the Memorable Honolulu Fish Auction

Hawaii Part 2: Two of Oahu’s Pioneering Chefs

Hawaii Part 3: A Tale of Two Very Different Farmers

Hawaii Part 5: Kona — Where Coffee Is King

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Date: Thursday, 1. December 2011 5:25
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Chefs, General, Restaurants, Seafood, Travel Adventures

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20 comments

  1. 1

    Marvelous! The food looks just out-of-this-world.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. 2

    Everything looks incredible. I can’t believe the fish house churns out 1,000 meals a day!

  3. 3

    I’ve never been to Hawaii but we’re planning to go for our honeymoon, whenever that will actually happen, not sure but I can’t wait!

  4. 4

    Poi must be a Northern Polynesian thing, my mum’s Maori and my step-mum is Tongan and neither have heard of it.
    The food here looks amazing – I wouldn’t have picked Hawaii for a foodie haven, but there you have it!

  5. 5

    I’d love to see where and how fish were caught on a menu! They look delicious on the plates too. So does the Hawaiian cioppino. What a fun and tasty trip.

  6. 6

    Add Beverly Gannon’s Hali’imaile General Store to that list, and you’ve really rocked the top of Maui! I’m glad you posted about Capische, Carolyn. We’ve always kind of avoided that one because, like you, Italian on Maui?? I’m passing a link to this on to our foodie son and daughter-in-law for their next trip over, but will try very hard to avoid letting my husband see it. He has long felt that I have somehow not found the right niche in terms of job benefits — knowing you were able to enjoy this kind of boondoggle would put him right over the edge ;-) Very happy for you to have been treated so royally though – you entirely deserve it!

  7. 7

    Wow, these are some amazing food! Now I have to consider stopping by Maui on my way to visit my family on Oahu next time! I love that pearl dessert at Mama’s Fish House. It does look beautiful, and I have to try their poi. Most times I agree that poi not only taste bland, but can sometimes taste tart. So got to check this out. I love how all the chefs are doing the “shaka” sign in your photos! So local! (And yes, that’s the right way to pronounce the name of the state fish. Just break it down, super easy!)

  8. 8

    Ohh… Love this post because you covered ALL of our favorites on Maui! We took a 10-day trip back in April and stayed at the Hotel Wailea (loved the solitude) and ate at Capische. Spike Mendelsen (Top Chef contender) was actually in town and staying there to help his friend/Capische chef during some restaurant cook-off, and I was fortunate enough to meet him at the Honolulu Coffee Co., which seriously brewed the best kona I’ve ever tasted.

    We loved all the restaurants at The Grand Wailea and the Four Seasons – but our hands-down favorite was Mama’s Fish House. If you visit Mike’s FB page – his profile shot is actually taken at that cove: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000343176467;-)

    The best piece of advice we got was to go there for lunch. Its less crowded, and the view is absolutely breathtaking.

    Have to agree with Carroll re: Hali’imaile General Store. I also loved The Plantation House. We were treated very well during a wine tasting and to dinner on the veranda.

    Always fun to read your posts, Carolyn. Thanks and it looks like you had an amazing trip. Let me know if you ever need a personal assistant! I call 1st dibs on that job….

  9. 9

    Some years ago, visiting a friend who was running one of the major Maui resorts, I tried to convince him to do a version of the casual but elegant seafood restaurants that are so wonderful on the Italian Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, but using Hawaii’s sensational seafood. He couldn’t see it. Glad to see Capische doing so well.

  10. 10

    Ok seriously missing Hawaii. I haven’t been in ages. Must. Go. Now.

  11. 11

    Ben: I’ve heard that the poi gets tart if it starts to sit around too long. It actually begins to ferment,so that’s why it takes on that kind of sour flavor. The poi at Mama’s Fish House, though, was not tart at all. Definitely had a freshness to it.

  12. 12

    The ono ceviche looks remarkable, lovely eats. thanks for sharing!

  13. 13

    Wow these posts have just gotten better and better. The food looks absolutely amazing!!We have never been to Hawaii but I am so ready for that to change!!

  14. 14

    I’m starving! What an epic trip Foodgal… such wondrous meals, those two shrimp dishes at the end are killing me!

  15. 15

    Man! HVCB really gave you the royal treatment!

    I would have totally dug into that kalua wild boar.

    BTW, you forgot a final “‘ah” at the end of the fish’s pronounciation. “pua’a” means “pig” in Hawaiian but “pua” means “flower”.

  16. 16

    Nate: Thanks for the help on the pronunciation. Good to have a native who actually can say it correctly, unlike yours truly, who can only fake it. ;)

  17. 17

    I just came back from Oahu, but now need to go to Maui to try these amazing places!!! Love your blog– I just started mine and yours is such an inspiration :)

  18. 18

    So much to love in this post from the fish with the fisherman’s name to the name Humuhumunukunukuapua’a! :P And dare I ask, how is it pronounced?

  19. 19

    Hawaii is my favorite place on earth. I lived there for a year when I was younger so I’m reading with delight (and a teeny tiny bit of jealousy) this series of post on the islands. I want to go back and do it all!

  20. 20

    Carolyn, I’m so jealous! That ono ceviche, along with the Maui onion-encrusted ahi tuna at Lahaina Grill, are THE reasons I go back to Maui. Sounds like you had a terrific time!

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