Bev Gannon’s first restaurant, Hali‘imaile General Store, keeps things classic.
The setting sun pushes an orange glow from behind, as we roll through upcountry Maui’s windswept sugarcane fields on Hali‘imaile Road. History notes that the road derived its name from the once abundant Hawaiian maile, a native vine that shrouded the area with a sweet, grassy fragrance like a blanket—which translates to hali‘i.
The road widens, and eventually, we reach Hali‘imaile General Store, chef Bev Gannon’s first restaurant. Perched right across from Hali‘imaile Distilling Company and its tasting room, the humble space was a retail hub during the plantation era, where pineapple farm workers sent and received mail and bought meat, fish, clothing and household goods.
It’s been almost three decades since Gannon opened the restaurant in 1988, and the 135-seat restaurant has stayed a faithful purveyor of classic Hawaiian cuisine. When asked about the next-generation cadre of culinary talent in Hawai‘i, Gannon says, “It’s promising. I just wish there were more women.”
To most local diners, Gannon needs no introduction. The well-accomplished chef, restaurateur and cookbook author is among the group of 12 now legendary toques who propelled the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement in the 1990s. Over the years, she has arduously run the island’s longest-running catering company, Gannon’s Restaurant in Wailea Golf Club, and is slated to relaunch the former Joe’s Bar and Grill in Kihei with a new Latin concept. Her celebrity cache shows no sign of waning, as she continues to be a strong presence at many of Hawai‘i’s high-profile culinary events. In the midst of the hustle, she does manage to carve out some downtime. When this article was written, Gannon was preparing for a weeklong trip to Paris. “I travel to eat,” she says.
The restaurant still functions as a store, albeit with locally made art. Upon entering the modern-day tavern, Jan Kasprzycki’s floral painting catches the eye. Its bold hues and brush strokes pop against the subdued walls. Sculpted, colorful fish mingle and hover over the bar, and are also pinned against the wall above the open kitchen. Watercolor artist Sherri Reeve, known for her origami-like, three-dimensional paintings of island flora and fauna, creates them in her Makawao studio. Sleek glass sculptures, from Makai Glass down the street, each beautifully shaped like a giant ink drop or a jagged crystal vase, punctuate the walls.
My friend Monica and I decide to begin our evening with a feel-good chicken soup.
It is hearty with brothy chunks of chicken, corn and orzo that sing in lemony notes, and topped with chopped cilantro. Then, we happily delved into a silky disk of goat cheese panna cotta, dripped with truffle honey, which sits on yellow beet purée. Served with arugula fennel salad coated with champagne vinaigrette, Marcona almonds and crispy onion strings, it’s arranged next to neat ruby slices of roasted red beets. Pulled confit duck tostada is lovely with Asian pears and served on a bed of jicama, cucumber and carrot slaw tossed in ginger-chili dressing atop crispy lumpia shells. Brined with gooseberry and star anise, the two-day confit is slow simmered for six hours until super tender.
Leading the kitchen is executive chef Noel Cleary, a New Yorker who moved from Colorado to Maui nine years ago “for the surf.” Cleary flexed his culinary skills at The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and aboard the Hula Girl luxury yacht before joining Gannon’s squad two years ago.
While the core menu has stayed the same, Cleary gets to play with daily or seasonal specials. “It’s not easy to swap things out,” he said. “People get angry.” It’s a perpetual chef dilemma to not deviate from diner expectations, especially once the restaurant becomes known for a particular dish. However, they might be easily swayed by a few new creations: lobster arancini, made rich with braised pork belly, lobster cream sauce and crab meat on top—or perhaps seared tenderloin beef carpaccio finessed with a poached egg.
As part of the menu transitions into spring, Cleary looks forward to working with his favorite local harvests and artisanal products—Hamakua ali‘i mushrooms from the Big Island, tomatoes from Dan Gold and cheeses from Maui Cheese Company, the island’s first truly local cheese maker, former Hali‘imaile chef Mauro Gramuglia.
The restaurant already serves Gramuglia’s burrata on the menu in a salad with heirloom cherry tomatoes, pistachio pesto and pomegranate molasses.
For our main, I couldn’t resist the seafood curry made with fresh ‘ahi, prawn and day-boat scallops steamed with coconut milk and a heady blend of house-made green curry paste, jalapeño, fish sauce and lemongrass pesto. A healthy mix of carrots, mushrooms and snap peas are woven into the offering, while a side of toasted coconut, cashews, raisins and mango chutney completes the textural party. The evening’s special also comes correct: barely seared ‘ahi, fanned in bright-red rectangular slivers on slightly tangy Kalamata olive emulsion, nicely paired with earthy, grilled portobello mushrooms and a shredded tumble of pickled onions.
If there is room for dessert, dissolve into decadent layers of dark chocolate cake and truffle ganache, or go with lilikoi brûlée in an almond-brittle cup. Those enamored with sweet Hawaiian classics will embrace the comforting buttery goodness of caramelized Maui Gold pineapple upside-down cake.
Hali‘imaile General Store, 900 Hali‘imaile Road, Makawao, (808) 572-2666 or bevgannonrestaurants.com