When Maui calls, you have to answer. Since my last magical visit to the island, I’ve dreamed of nothing but palm trees and the warm breeze that greets when you when arrive. The solitude of cruising down a sunny two-lane, oceanside highway. The welcoming ‘aloha’, the thoughtful ‘mahalo’.
So when I received the call (or the email, rather) inviting me to participate as a judge at this year’s Maui County Agricultural Festival, there was little hesitation. Would I return to that beautiful island – and its people, food, historic Hawaiian culture – that had embedded itself in my heart and soul? Yes, yes I would.
Not only was the agricultural event a spectacular display of all the goods, wares, and fine hardworking folks residing on the Hawaiian island (more on that next week), as part of a food-filled week of media familiarization, our group of journalists dined and imbibed around the countryside, from Wailea to Lahaina to Wailuku – and found a number of dining destinations worthy of a second and third visit.
1) Star Noodle, Lahaina
Dare I say, starting off the trip with a spot like Star Noodle was definitely setting the bar a little high. Chef Sheldon Simeon had come across my radar earlier this year when he was chosen as a finalist of Food & Wine magazine’s “People’s Best New Chef”, so the location was on my list of required island stops. Early on a Thursday night, the restaurant was already packed, with folks waiting outside in the parking lot for a seat at the lone restaurant hidden among industrial buildings. Our table ordered nearly eleven dishes, interested in trying the whole gamut, from ahi to roasted mushrooms to noodles of every shape, size, and flavor. There were cocktails and dessert and unending glasses of water for all of us weary travelers – and it was all worth it. Star Noodle is definitely a restaurant shining star.
Even though there’s certainly a store housing the busy bakery line, visitors and locals queue at the door for the pastry wares at this little corner store located in the curiously spaghetti western town of Makawao. Guava malasadas, malasadas on a stick, and cream puffs bigger than your hand fill the glass window cases, making it a great upcountry stop for all-things sweet and bakery-fresh.
3) Longhi’s, Wailea-Makena
What a fine, fine venue for a little birthday breakfast in Wailea-Makena. My fellow fun-loving cohorts, Ayngelina Brogan of Bacon Is Magic and Carol Cain of NYCity Mama, picked the spot, and we were super pleased with the decision. Despite the placement on the outskirts of a busy shopping center (the beautiful Shops at Wailea), the patio seating was comfortable in during our Monday mid-morning visit. With bloody marys and mimosas all around, we ordered the weekly pastry (topped with strawberry and cream cheese) as well as the saucer-sized cinnamon roll, a local favorite, in addition to our eggs, potatoes, and assorted breakfast dishes. The pleasant staff and stellar food offerings definitely made the restaurant a place for repeat brunch visits.
4) Pulehu, Ka’anapali Beach
Nestled away in the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas, Pulehu arrived at the nearly tail end of my visit, but a wonderful way to wrap up the visit. The cheese plate featured island favorites, including a spread from Maui’s popular Surfing Goat Dairy, with a charcuterie plate to please the meat-eaters in the group. Specializing in Italian dishes utilizing all the best local ingredients, I was encouraged to order the Moloka’i Shrimp Risotto as a main course – and was super impressed – following up with nearly every dessert on the menu. I didn’t skip over the cocktails or the extensive international wine list either, and the open-air patio perched against a beautiful koi pond only added to the celebration of the spectacular birthday meal.
5) Cilantro Grill, Lahaina
I didn’t get a chance to stop by Cilantro Grill on my last visit to the island, but the aforementioned ladies and I had a lunchtime half hour to ourselves, and stopped by for bite. Again, very impressed. Positioned in one of Lahaina’s many strip mall spaces, I went with the Mother Cluker flautas (how could I not) and was very pleased in my choice. Fast service, fantastic flavors, fresh made-to-order dishes – a great recommendation for both a quick lunch and an easy dinner.
6) David Paul’s Island Grill, Lahaina
Our last dining adventure on the island included a private tasting at David Paul’s Island Grill in Lahaina. Chef David Paul Johnson had left the area for nearly a decade after parting ways with his Lahaina Grill location, and returned in 2009 to open the new location. Like many of his fellow chefs, Johnson utilizes the abundance of local ingredients while incorporating some of the finest imports as well. Prepared by the chef himself, our courses included a housemade burrata cheese, an Idaho trout salad, Maui-raised Berkshire pork belly, and a cheeky cherry-topped panna cotta. The space within the restaurant is warm and inviting, and includes an open front patio with an ocean view, as well as a cozy banquette and fire place setting in the back. You can also reserve a two-seat chef’s table in the kitchen for special occasions, putting you in the heart – and nearly on the line – of the busy kitchen.
As far as drinks go, aside from the mentions above, I wasn’t able to find a stellar craft cocktail location on this visit (don’t get me started on the conversation I had with one bartender about Fernet-Branca) but there are plenty of mai tais to be had at Kimo’s in Lahaina. And I know from my previous visit that the bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua can certainly satiate any Fernet requirements you might have.
In case you missed last year’s posts on Maui, previous restaurant favorites include The Banyan Tree with chef Jojo Vasquez at the Ritz-Carlton, as well as Humuhumunukunukuapua’a with chef Isaac Bancaco at the Grand Wailea.
Stay tuned next week for the wrap up of my time at the Maui County Agricultural Festival!
*Photo credit: Chef Sheldon Simeon – Ayngelina Brogan / Bacon Is Magic; All others – Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender
**As mentioned above, I was thrilled to be invited back by the wonderful folks at the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau. Many mahalos to Keli’i Brown and Charlene Ka’uhane for the invitation and coordination.