Hawaii Eats: Pacifico On The Beach, Maui
Lahaina, Maui, HI — If you’re lucky enough to be on Maui from now through Saturday, you can enjoy the inventive dish that landed Assistant Executive Chef McKenna Shea of Pacifico On The Beach victory on the Food Network’s “Chopped” last month.
For the past month, the inviting beachfront restaurant has featured that special abalone salad that helped her trounce three other chefs and score the $10,000 prize.
Admittedly, she was initially befuddled upon opening up the mystery basket to discover abalone and ube cheesecake. Who wouldn’t be, right?
Not only that, she had never worked with abalone before. But harnessing the skills she’d learned from her mentor, Pacifico’s Executive Chef Isaac Bancaco, she set to work.
Visiting Maui last month, I had a chance to dine at Pacifico, a 28-year-old restaurant that Bancaco was hired to revamp a year ago. Don’t be surprised if some of the fresh catch of the day was actually caught by Bancaco, who’s an avid fisherman, too.
The restaurant also boasts its own farm, too. Located 25 miles away, it supplies more than 50 different items to the restaurant, including veggies, fruits, herbs, flowers, honey, eggs, coffee, tea, and olive oil.
Take a seat on the back patio that’s indeed right on the beach. Relax with a cocktail like Life of Kai ($16), a fragrantly floral blend of lemongrass ginger shochu, mint, jasmine tea syrup, lemon, and Cocchio Americano with an artsy cucumber garnish.
The “Chopped” special goes fast, so be sure to ask if it’s available right when you sit down. Big Island abalone is breaded in veggie chips and deep-fried. Crunchy pieces sit atop Kula watercress and radicchio, along with an ube Nicoise vinaigrette. And would you believe that Shea actually makes the effort to make her own ube cheesecake to then transform into a sauce, to maintain the authenticity of what she created on the show? That’s dedication.
It’s a fun dish. The abalone is chewy-tender and eats almost like popcorn shrimp, making it a perfect foil for the peppery, bitter and crunchy cress and radicchio. The lavender sauce is thick, creamy, a little sweet, and a little tangy. Yes, cheesecake actually does work as a salad dressing. Who would have thought?
Hawaiian brioche buns ($12) are tender like Parker House rolls, with crispy edges, a tender interior, and a sweet finish.
Bruschetta, grilled and mounded with diced Kula strawberries and a drizzle of balsamic, was a nice light bite gift from the kitchen.
House-made kimchi ($8) is a lively, spicy mix of crunchy cabbage, carrots, and Asian pears that makes for a great nosh all meal long.
For entrees, I honed in immediately on the Mahi-mahi Wellington ($59), which is a total looker with its golden latticed pastry. It cradles a filling of lobster, mushroom duxelles, and mahi mahi. Even with the classic beef, a Wellington is a tricky dish to get right to ensure both pastry and filling are cooked properly at the same time. In this case, the fish and lobster were both righteously moist while the pastry was crisp and flaky, no easy feat. It was finished with a sauce of a fresh tasting herby pea emulsion that also added great color to the whole dish.
It was a mahi mahi kind of night, as my husband enjoyed the blackened fresh catch ($49 market price) that featured the firm, mild white fish charred in a riot of peppery spices and served with a spicy kimchi gribiche sauce, along with marble potatoes and caramelized onions.
The restaurant’s creativity again shines in the roster of desserts, which includes an ulu creme caramel ($15). Soft and creamy, it sports not a jiggly consistency but a slightly denser, starchier one owing to the addition of the breadfruit flour in it. It’s topped with a bountiful quenelle of whipped cream cheesecake, toasted shredded coconut, and sesame brittle. It makes for a comforting, satisfying dessert that’s a delicious twist on the usual.
Congrats to Chef Shea on her win — and for crafting such a winsome menu with Chef Bancaco that’s worth making time for.