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Hawaii Part 4: Four Magnificent Meals on Maui

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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