Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wow-wee Maui

The clouds actually spill over the north side of Maui at sunset, as if wrapping it in a blanket for the night.
If I had a dollar for every time I broke the third commandment in Hawaii, it could have probably paid for a few extra nights of accommodations.  As if channelling Elle Woods, the only words I could often find to describe my reactions were "Oh My Gawd" or some variation there-of, sometimes speckled with expletives (random thought... is texting OMG using the Lord's name in vain???)  It's as if the majestic landscape renders you momentarily unintelligent, void of sufficient adjectives to articulate what you are witnessing.  And Maui was certainly no exception.  Formed by two shield volcanoes that overlapped enough to form one island (a volcanic doublet) over millions of years, Maui is one of the few islands where you can see other parts of it wrapped around the distant horizon, as well as two other nearby islands just across the ocean.  The result is as if gazing upon painted scenery, and if you concentrate long enough, all concept of distance blurs and you imagine you could swim between the islands.

From our balcony at the gorgeous Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, we could not only see the northern part of the island off to the right, but also the island of Lanai (from our lanai!) straight ahead, as well as the unpopulated island of Kahoolawe far off to the left.  This black sand beach (above) was just footsteps from our patio, and we watched the sun set behind Lanai our first evening, the reflection glowing golden on the volcanic sands.  Of course just a short walk to the left or right, and there were white sand beaches where sunbathers would rotisserie during the day, or even swim and snorkel in the ocean with enormous sea turtles.

After having driven the full length of Kauai what seemed like several times the day before (we were in the car for nearly a total of seven hours in just one day), we determined that Maui would be our R&R island.  After all, it was home of the meal we had most eagerly anticipated; not to mention that our aspirations for the Big Island coming up would demand our full strength.

A ten minute drive from Wailea, downtown Kihei holds several clusters of small restaurants and shops in a fairly concentrated area, ideal for one-stop shopping.  So for lunch, I took a recommendation to check out a local favorite, Da Kitchen, a casual little restaurant serving "plate lunches" with large portions of Hawaiian cuisine at very reasonable prices.  As always, it's a great indicator of authenticity when you pull up and the restaurant is full of construction workers in neon orange vests, and local families arriving in pick-up trucks.  If overwhelmed by the huge menu, the Hawaiian Plate is a perfect choice--a sort of sampler with lau lau pork (steamed pork wrapped in taro leaves), kalua pork (slow-cooked and shredded and wonderfully salty), chicken long rice (almost like chicken and vermicelli in a richly flavored savory broth), lomo salmon (think pico de gallo with bits of salmon), a scoop of rice, and a side of potato mac (that's potato macaroni salad... combining two picnic classics), and of course, a can of POG.  I tasted small portions of the extremely generous heapings, not wanting to spoil the upcoming dinner.

Da Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Stopping at a gift shop on the way home, of course the basket of strange candy bars on the counter caught my eye.  Despite my affinity for food and my occasional sweet tooth, you will rarely see me eating candy.  I take in enough calories writing about meals that excessive snacks aren't justifiable.  But when the wrapper indicates it's a special candy bar made nearby, and the fillings range from potato chip, to chewy banana and macadamia nut, to caramel and kona coffee milk chocolate bars, you at least have to try one.  And let me tell you, if you see these guys on a counter, snatch them up.  They are absolutely delicious, real chocolate made from local ingredients, with fun fillings...  What I intended to be a gift for friends in NYC ended up being consumed over the course of the next four days and as mid-flight snacks.

Wow-Wee Maui Kava Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

By the afternoon, full blown fatigue had officially reigned victorious, and I slowed the throttle on my zeal for exploration, retreating to the infinity pool.  What you see in the above photo is my view at eye level when I woke up leaning on the edge of the pool overlooking the ocean, lapping up water like a dehydrated puppy.  I have no idea how long this had been happening before coming to (my friend had been sleeping on a sun chair on the pool deck the whole time), but judging from the giggles around me I had probably been asleep at least long enough for an REM cycle or two, some sleep talking, and perhaps a thunderous snore or two... my shoulders slightly tender under the sun.  Embarrassed, but fully refreshed and relaxed, it was time to prepare for dinner.

If you do nothing else on Maui, you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  If you have no other meal in Hawaii, you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  If you love seafood, have ever dreamt of dinner on the beach, value impeccable service, crave top cuisine in a more comfortable atmosphere, and want a meal you will remember for the rest of your life... you must eat at Mama's Fish House.  While I wish we had enjoyed more time to explore the mysteries of Maui the way that we did Kauai, this dinner alone was reason that I will someday fly back to this very island, in the hopes of sharing this incredibly special restaurant with dear people in my life.

 After descending a tiki-lit pathway down a hill, this converted beach house sits on a white sand beach in a secluded coconut grove.  Passing through an open air lobby with a multi-colored blown glass chandelier, the dining room unfolds in retro Hawaiian decor, tables generously spaced apart, with dramatic lighting from burlap-lined bushel basket lamp shades creating the illusion that your table is the only one for miles around.  Signature drinks include vintage cocktails, like the 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai.  And while many restaurants claim the farm-to-table philosophy, the menu at Mama's lists the actual names of the fisherman who caught the fish on that day's menu, different names by each dish.

Amuse bouche: an earthenware shot glass of Haiku tomato ginger bisque
Service was flawless--knowledgeable, attentive, but never overbearing, and refreshingly relaxed without being too familiar.  Beginning with the whole wheat honey poppyseed bread and an amuse bouche of a silky, sweet Haiku tomato ginger bisque (recipe available here), every dish that arrived was exceedingly delicious and memorable.  When the bisque arrived, our server explained the gorgeous fresh flower on our table was known as red ginger, encouraging us to gently squeeze it to release its aroma.  Like inhaling the bouquet of a wine before sipping, the fresh scent of spicy ginger in the air only made the bisque that much more pleasurable.

Buttery tenderloin medallions in a grilled, ripe Hana papaya should not be missed, the char caramelizing the sweet fruit even more, rendering the pulp juicy and tender, almost spreadable on the medallions of steak.  A Tahitian ceviche of ono marinated in lime and coconut milk arrived in a coconut shell, with a trellis of fresh coconut spears like a tipi over the tender, buttery sashimi.

Though chilled soups have never been my preference, this chilled mango and Tahitian lime soup blows my mind, launching my tastebuds on a fantastic and unfamiliar roller coaster ride (a trait I cherish in a dish) like a bowl of sweet, tart, herbed mango sorbet that has just barely melted to liquid, yet thick enough to make a satisfying dish all by itself.  Even Mama's salad with hearts of palm, dried cranberries, goat cheese, and bacon exploded with flavor.

At the precise moment any diner's taste buds would have been teetering on the precipice of confusion, small dollops of passion fruit-coconut water sorbet arrive to cleanse the palate for the main courses.

Choosing each course is somewhat agonizing, as not a single menu description lacks in appeal.  I simply looked at our server for each course and said, "this is our first visit, and we may never have the chance to eat here again... please tell me the one dish I simply have to try."  For a broad sample of the fresh catch, we enjoyed a trio of ahi, ono, and mahimahi sauteed in panang curry and coconut milk with a tangy mango chutney.  Each small filet contributed a unique texture and flavor to the mild spices, creamy sauce, and vibrant chutney.  But the one dish I will never, ever forget, is the signature mahimahi caught along the north shore of Maui by Amando Baula (recipe available here).  Juicy filets of mahimahi are stuffed with sweet lobster and crabmeat, then crusted in crushed macadamia nuts which give a glorious crunch before biting into the tender seafood.  A pineapple beurre blanc blankets the dish, lending exotic sweetness and butter to what is already an exquisite preparation (our server generously brought a boat of extra on the side, which I generously ladled over everything on the plate).  Topped with a lobster tail and spears of baby asparagus and served with sweet white corn on the cob, this is that one Hawaiian dish of which you thought you could only dream, as you sigh, smile, and savor each bite, not wanting to share, but knowing that your dinner companion simply has to experience this treasure, as you relinquish the smallest forkful you can muster, praying he won't ask for a second bite!

Now when people you meet at the hotel, in the airport, or at the beach find out you will be dining at Mama's, and afterwards when friends at home inquire about your trip, almost everyone will ask if you tried the Polynesian Black Pearl--their signature dessert--a passionfruit chocolate mousse served in a pastry seashell.  Preparing for our dinner, it is the only dish virtually everyone said we had to try.  So when our server rather passionately steered us another direction, it was a dilemma.  As she had guided us flawlessly in every other way, it felt rude not to trust her at the finale.  And I am so glad that we chose to trust her, because this Kuau chocolate pie was a memory in and of itself.  As your fork cuts down into a gooey (yet not overpoweringly rich) chocolate ganache, buttery caramel pours out the sides down the chocolate cookie crust.  You then stab a raspberry or blueberry and swirl it through the sauce, before stabbing the chocolate for the perfect bite.  Our server brought out a scoop of homemade Bailey's ice cream to help balance the flavors, and it was a profoundly delicious combination.

Vacation dinner in my family always ends with a slice of key lime pie, so when our server gave us the thumbs up on the Tahitian Lime pie with coconut lime sorbet, we had to jump in.  Topped with a toasted coconut dusted chocolate palm tree on a beach of cookie crumbles and crunchy chocolate pearls, it was perfectly tart and playful--a great balance to its more decadent chocolate caramel counterpart.  And after a stemmed mug of Bora Bora coffee with dark rum and a scraping of fresh vanilla bean, an evening dip in the jacuzzi and a light swim in the pool was the only thing left to cap off the evening.

Our check was presented with two pieces of homemade haupia, like a small mignardises of coconut panna cotta--as well as a warm hand towel soaked in almond extract, which left our hands almost bafflingly smooth and moisturized.  

The price range is admittedly a little higher than many other Hawaiian restaurants (though certainly nothing shocking by New York standards), but the check you pay at the end has less to do with the plates you ordered than the entire memory that was created.  From atmosphere and decor, to service, exceptional and exotic cuisine, to complimentary valet parking, I cannot imagine a better dollar spent on a holiday.

Mama's Fish House on Urbanspoon

And considering Urbanspoon had sponsored this as one of the meals provided with the trip, it was one of the moments in Hawaii where I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity I had been given.  Couples and families save months and years for a trip like this, and I here I sat with one of my dearest friends enjoying the meal of a lifetime courtesy of my favorite dining website and smartphone app, a premier airline, and one of the most trusted and respected hotel brands in the world.  And all because I started a humble blog about something I love, and have been blessed with a miraculous support system of people who believe in me in ways I never could have asked, and voted to win me this experience.  I pinched myself all the way back to the hotel.  And then I slept like a baby under crisp, fresh hotel sheets, my curling my toes in brand new white socks, with the air conditioning on high, my head on a mountain of soft pillows, facing the outline of the distant islands in the moonlight just across a silver ocean.  Life is way better than good.

* * * * *

And remember, you too can enjoy Mama's Fish House on Maui courtesy of Urbanspoon, with flights generously provided by Hawaiian Airlines and gorgeous accommodations by Marriott just like I did.  All you have to do is click here to learn how (it's easy--you just make a reservation on Urbanspoon for a chance to win your own trip!)


Anonymous said...

My wife and I visited Mamas on our honeymoon just for drinks an apps. We were so impressed that when we visited Maui again two years later Mamas was firs on our list of restaurants we wanted to visit. We went for dinner the second time we visited and it was outstanding to say the least. You really can't find words to explain the experience or the food. It was the highlight of our amazing visit to Maui. That was almost four years ago and we still talk about it. I would recommend to anyone visiting Maui to go and experience Mamas for themselves. Thanks for the great article.

Piggyeatalot said...

Hi Amuse Bouche

Thank you for your recommendations and whilst I will keep browsing through your blog, can I ask, how did you get from Mama's back to your hotel? Did you hire a car or did you take a cab? I will be staying at Kihei and it would be great if you could let me know :)



amuse*bouche said...

Hi Piggyeatalot!

We had been provided a rental car, which was extremely useful. However, Mama's is not far from Kihei at all, so a taxi may not be a bad idea...

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