Homegrown In Hana

Savor a unique dining destination at Hotel Hana-Maui’s Ka’uiki restaurant

Sometimes it’s the road less traveled that leads you to the most interesting places. The road to Hana might be one of the more hazardous trips to take for dinner in Hawai’i, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. after an incredible journey by car from Kahului airport of more than two hours and 600 turns that weave and wind past waterfalls and lava tubes, and through 52 miles of extraordinary natural beauty, the stillness of Hotel Hana-Maui seems almost surreal.

Along 67 acres of secluded Maui coastline, you can lose yourself in rolling hills and a pastoral scene of cows grazing in green fields amidst air so crisp and clear, it makes you feel better simply by inhaling.

But don’t mistake rural Hana, with its modest population of 700, two churches and famed Hasegawa General Store, for a backwater when it comes to fine dining. Because what you’ll find at Hotel Hana’s signature restaurant, Ka’uiki, is farm-to-table cuisine that would turn most chefs green with envy.

With homegrown ingredients such as deep-purple eggplant, zucchini, basil, tomatoes, pineapple, mango and begonia blossoms on the menu alongside locally raised beef, freshly caught fish and even forest-foraged mushrooms, this bounty from nature’s pantry is both unusual and incredible. With more than 90 percent of the ingredients used in the hotel kitchen grown on Maui (most within a few miles of the restaurant), dinner at Ka’uiki is something of a culinary dream.

Certainly it’s what made food and beverage director Keith Mallini change his life course. He was on his way to a new position in hotel management in Hong Kong when he sidetracked to Hana before he left Hawai’i.

“i stayed for dinner, tasted a salad and thought ‘Wow, this is incredible,'” he recalls. By the next morning, Mallini had decided to stay in Hana, and he now devotes much of his time to promoting the best-kept culinary secret in Hawai’i.

And while he’s the first to admit that there are easier restaurant destinations to get to, he agrees there are none where you’ll find food any fresher. “Even the garnishes here are amazing,” he says. “We always tell guests to eat them.”

The restaurant itself is understated and unremarkable. Granted, there’s an incredible view from almost every table, with endless ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other, but the décor is charmingly dated, stuck somewhere in the mid-1970s, an audacious statement to the fact that nothing matters here except the food.

There’s a changing menu nightly, depending on what comes into the kitchen during the day.

“The fishermen call me from their boats and either tell me what they’ve caught or ask what i could use,” says executive sous chef Keoki McGee. Sometimes he goes out fishing with them and brings back his own catch of the day for dinner. “i love to fish,” he says. “There’s nothing better than catching something and then serving it in the restaurant that night.” and if the chef isn’t fishing, then you can be pretty sure someone else on staff is. The pastry cook’s son is a fisherman, as are managers and waiters. Only at Ka’uiki might your waitress explain the menu to you, adding, “my father caught the ahi today,” or “the sweet potato is from my cousin’s farm.”

As you’d expect from a restaurant surrounded by ocean, there’s always fresh fish on the menu: Mahi Mahi Glazed with Passion Fruit ($33), for example, or Sesame Crusted ahi ($34). Both are served within hours of being caught, with simple seasonings. What you might not expect are pheasant and goat, and edible begonia blossoms garnishing your plate.

And if you thought that this supremely isolated corner of the world might offer, at best, some attempt at regional cuisine and dishes that match the dated décor, be prepared to be astounded. This food could be the flagship for a new kind of Pacific rim cuisine. Farm-to-table, forager-to-foodie, fishermen-to-aficionado – call it what you like – it’s the ultimate “green” cuisine, sustainable farming with exquisite taste. Baby greens served with locally harvested tropical fruit and Tahitian vanilla; Haleakala Lamb Spring rolls with a sweet dipping sauce and cilantro garnish; and Grilled Eggplant Napoleon (a mix of Hana-grown eggplant, zucchini and basil, with Hamakua tomatoes, freshly made mozzarella and saba) all share space on a menu crammed with local produce.

A nightly tasting menu ($78 for five courses) might feature dishes like Garlic Shichimi Spice Blackened ahi, roasted Opakapaka with Hamakua alii Mushrooms and Wilted Gai Choy, Haleakala Lamb roulade and Hawaiian vintage Chocolate Cake.

There’s an award-winning wine list that boasts more than 400 selections, including Louis roederer Cristal ($393), Cain vineyards “Cain Five” Cabernet Meritage 2004 ($182), Silver Oak alexander valley Cabernet 2003 ($124) and a dozen or more esoteric whites and reds from South africa, Chile, Spain and beyond.

The connection between restaurant staff and the people who farm and fish for food is intertwined. “This is a truly family-based hotel,” says Mallini. “There are third-generation family members working here – people who’ve grown up with the hotel.”

And it strikes me, somewhere between finishing a tender, grass-fed Maui Cattle Company filet and while contemplating a dozen different exotic fruits on a plate, that for all its isolation and retro décor, Ka’uiki is what other restaurants around the world hope to be: a truly sustainable fine-dining restaurant with food of unquestionable quality and a restaurant staff that treats guests like family.

Sitting by the restaurant window, watching waves crash against the rocky shoreline, i’m reminded of the trend-setting cuisine of chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran adria and their experiments with molecular gastronomy. These chefs have dedicated themselves to bringing the “scientific” experience of dining to their guests. at their restaurants, diners are treated to dishes with titles like “The Sound of The Sea,” electric fans blow a breeze across the dining room, and an iPod at the table plays the sound of the ocean breaking at shore.

A world away, just 600 turns and 52 miles from Kahului airport, the real thing has existed for decades.

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