Twenty-six years later, Lahaina Grill’s standout dishes still enthrall.
One can find Lahaina Grill in the heart of West Maui’s busiest stretch, where an iconic banyan tree sprawls, an illustrious list of historic landmarks remain and a parade of Murakamis and Ertés can be enjoyed from the adjacent gallery. This well-loved neighborhood brasserie has reached a sweet spot, making its way to most tourists’ itinerary, and earning best-of accolades likening those of Meryl Streep during award season.
Its cheery façade reveals a lively and dimly lit dining room filled with polished details—the ornate pressed ceiling, white tablecloths and the cadre of sharply dressed crew in the thick of service. Ubiquitous landscape canvases by local artist Jan Kasprzycki brighten up almost every wall. In the middle is a bar where many a dirty martini or old fashioned has been stirred. It is the perfect place to people watch.
Situated just a few minutes from the harbor, and right below a charming inn, expect Lahaina Grill to be jamming every night. There are long-time devotees cozied up to a hearty plate of wagyu-mushroom ravioli in morel mushroom-brandy cream sauce, a deep-red cabernet and perhaps a side of nostalgia. There are ladies on a night out, swapping sandals and beach cover-ups for heels and fancy dresses, bubblies in hand. It’s clear that this is a special-occasion venue.
The menu is rooted in simplicity, and executed well. Local produce drives the vegetable sides, rightfully so; while prime-cut proteins and some seafood are procured elsewhere—save for the local ‘ahi and opakapaka. Figs have made its way on a few dishes. As a compote, it’s paired with goat cheese, and slathered on toast to accompany oven-roasted red-and-golden baby beets; it crowns the foie gras atop the seared ‘ahi—and becomes a nice counterpart to its Maui onion duck demi-glace. Moreover, it gives a touch of sweetness to the olive tapenade crostini on a loaded beef Carpaccio—sliced paper-thin with shavings of manchego cheese—spicy mustard aioli and orange-infused olive oil.
The escargot is baked with garlic butter and a hint of curry, perfect for bread sopping once the earthy mollusks have been consumed. Poke, currently trending hard in the mainland, is a delicious assembly of cubed ‘ahi, seaweed salad, julienned watermelon radish and nice pops of red jalapeños generously coated in tamari-ginger dressing. Avocados add a creamy texture to this Hawaiian staple.
A few regulars are known to call ahead, and request for certain dishes that have long been removed from the menu. While this might be completely ridiculous and frowned upon elsewhere, the restaurant’s long-time executive chef—Arnulfo Gonzalez, chef Arnie to most—aims to please his sentimental clientele. After 23 years at the helm of Lahaina Grill’s kitchen and decades’ worth of top honors, Gonzalez considers guest satisfaction his proudest feat.
“I want every guest to feel special while they are dining with us and after they leave,” Gonzalez says. “I want them to feel full and content, and have had a great night out with their friends and family.”
It surely helps to have a seasoned proprietor who has a behemoth of experience in the kitchen. Restaurateur Jurg Munch, whose career began in Zürich, Switzerland, eventually worked a 17-year stint at the iconic Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, where he became the executive chef, overseeing about 3,000 meals at any given day. A much-deserved time off on Maui convinced Munch and his wife, Linda, that they’ve found their next home. Munch opened Lahaina Grill in 1990, on Valentine’s Day no less, and its steadfast menu of New American comfort dishes paced with a fine-dining sensibility has sustained its solid reputation in town.
A mostly veteran crew runs the restaurant, a rarity in the high-turnover restaurant industry—and even more so on an island where young professionals constantly move around. Darting back and forth between tables and the kitchen, our server, Justin, is engaging and insightful, happy to discuss the nuances between grapes, while pairing wines with a big party on a nearby table—the extensive wine program curated by sommelier Richard Olson III has some 350 selections so paring down the options was essential and helpful—or why Five Mountains might be the best tea there is after I’ve ordered a cup of chamomile at the end of the evening.
Gonzalez grew up in Tepatitlan, Jalisco, just south of Guadalajara and the chile relleno is a nod his Mexican heritage. Blue corn and panko-crusted, it is elevated with chunks of tiger prawns, scallops and heaps of jack cheese, served on roasted Kula corn relish and Olowalu tomato and chile salsa, with buttery avocado and crunchy wonton strips perched on top.
Lahaina Grill’s most emblematic special, the delicate opakapaka, notes the chef ‘s penchant for this plate and risotto. “I really love risotto,” he shares. “It takes a lot of patience to create the right risotto. Then, you have a perfect base for so many different flavors and styles.”
While one might find variations that include pancetta, artichokes or chile and corn; the evening’s creamy mushroom and truffle risotto played well with the Asiago-crusted snapper topped with grilled tiger prawns and finished with a classic Champagne beurre blanc. The osso bucco’s slow-braised shank is super tender and decadent in glossy cabernet sauce, and flanked with glazed beets and carrots around its bed of herbed mash potato. I scoop the prized marrow in the center frugally, ensuring an umami-laden last bite.
Before calling “pau,” indulge in some wonderful desserts, all of which are available in tasting portions. Pulled sugar arches over chocolate-encased layers of chocolate cake and chocolate sour cream mousse on a macadamia nut-caramel base. Flourless chocolate cake is amped up with Kona coffee ice cream. Velvety lime pie is made with limes grown in Kula, and the most raved-about triple berry pie has an almost-brûléed sugary crust, its rich filling made with raspberries, blackberries and black currants, and simply topped with fluffy whipped cream. Life in Lahaina can be so sublime.
Lahaina Grill, 129 Lahainaluna Road, Lahaina, Maui, (808) 667-5117, lahainagrill.com
All photos courtesy Lahaina Grill