Ko at the Fairmont Kea Lani offers a passionate approach to traditional recipes
Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani has been home to some very fine food over the years. In the mid-1990s, Shep Gordon’s Grand
Chefs on Tour made frequent stops at the luxurious resort, and highly respected celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, Roger Verge and Nobu Matsuhisa could be found making dinner and teaching hands-on classes for guests.
The Kea Lani’s reputation for excellent food was sealed with the Grand Chefs. Under the guidance of food and beverage director/Executive Chef Tylun Pang, it continues to offer its food-savvy guests something on the cutting edge.
You might expect the resort’s flagship restaurant to be an immaculate dining room with beach-front views, sparkling silverware and crisp white linens. But, in an intriguing twist that immediately piques an adventurous diner’s appetite, Ko, the Kea Lani’s signature restaurant, doesn’t really exist.
Well, not during daytime hours anyway.
In the space where Ko is rumored to be located – an area formerly occupied by CafÃ© Ciao – I find an empty bar and unadorned tables.
“We clean it up a bit for dinner,” says assistant food and beverage director Pete Sylvester. “No, really,” he insists, smiling. “You’ll love how it looks at night.”
Sylvester refers to Ko as “his baby.” He and the rest of the culinary team – and most of the hotel staff, it seems – worked on the Ko concept for almost two years before it opened in spring 2008. Researching Hawaii’s food history and the effect that plantation workers had on Maui’s culinary culture was a labor of love.
“There is simply no other restaurant on the island like it,” Sylvester says. High praise indeed for a restaurant situated on arguably Hawaii’s finest dining island.
He’s right about the nighttime look, as a somewhat magical transformation turns a casual daytime pool area into the elegant al fresco restaurant, complete with private dining cabanas and white lights shimmering like diamonds.
For dinner, we sit poolside in a cabana where the view is a starry sky and the azure infinity pool just yards away. Candlelight illuminates the table’s soft earth tones as we take a first look at this menu that inspired so many people to honor their culinary heritage.
“The multigenerational aspect is what we wanted to showcase,” Sylvester says. “The plantation era brought the Portuguese workers and Filipinos and Chinese and Japanese here – and they brought their food with them. Everyone in the hotel is so proud of this restaurant.”
There’s passion at Ko that you sense the minute you’re seated. The staff is enthused about the menu, but more than that, they understand it.
“Ko is the story of the people on Maui and how they interacted with each other when they came together,” Sylvester says. “We have people in the kitchen cooking their own family recipes.”
Certainly that’s true of Executive Chef Pang, who re-creates his family’s cake noodles for the menu, and Chef Jake Belmonte, who brings recipes and memories from his father, a first-generation plantation worker.
When Belmonte’s father retired from sugar plantation work, the Hawaii-born chef went to the Philippines and spent 11 years learning about his heritage. “It greatly influenced me as a chef,” he says. “I understand how products are cultivated and cared for, and that’s what the work (at Ko) is about.”
The menu offers a number of intriguing dishes, and, as you’d expect, an abundance of locally grown produce.
We start with Ahi on the Rock ($24), three pieces of shichimi-spiced ahi served next to an orange and ginger miso sauce and a piping hot rock. The ahi is meant to be picked up with a tiny bamboo stick and then seared on the rock. Next there’s American Kobe Beef Poke ($26) a dish that offers an alternative to ahi in seared Kobe beef chopped with cucumber, tomato and Maui onion, served in a handmade ceramic bowl.
Both dishes are a pleasant way to start dinner, but it’s the Lumpia (Filipino Spring Rolls) that steals the show. The recipe is Belmonte’s – these crisp, flaky, paper-thin rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, chicken and mushroom are utterly addictive.
You could easily make dinner of these appetizers, but there’s more on this menu that needs to be explored. Dining at Ko is a bit like culinary time travel – you taste your way through dishes that have been around for hundreds of years, adapted to serve our more sophisticated modern palates.
Fish comes in fresh each morning, so there’s no way of knowing what will be on the menu until evening, when the catch is served in five different ways, including a classic Chinese wok style and a lemon herb butter presentation.
The dishes alternate between simplicity in perfect pancit noodles with shrimp, pork and fresh vegetables, to sheer decadence in lobster tempura with spicy sesame and chili garlic sauce, to elegantly presented homecooking with Chef Pang’s cake noodles.
Ko also offers local favorites with a contemporary twist: Korean-Style Spicy Chicken, Portuguese Bean Soup, Crispy Calamari, Steamed Manila Clams, Paniolo Rib Eye Steak, Ko Fried Rice, and Grilled Island Opakapaka with miso butter and coleslaw.
For dessert, you’ll find more familiar names with new twists: Shave Ice (served with sweet red beans and vanilla mochi ice cream), Portuguese Sweet Bread Pudding, Chinese Almond Float, Mochi Samplers, and Lumpia are among the menu’s treats. Next to Plantation Pineapple Cake, there’s a nod to Maui’s growing agribusiness, and a new food future, in the Wailua Estate Chocolate Baked Custard.
The wine list offers variety, with notations on wines that are produced organically or with the use of biodynamic farming practices. There also are sakes that pair perfectly with dishes like Lumpia and Korean Spicy Chicken.
The concept of farm-to-table dining with influences from the past could have gone awry in other hoteliers’ hands, or become a little too contrived if created by a marketing team. But here amidst tradewinds and tropical trees, Ko works just perfectly – a space created without doors or walls as a heartfelt testament to time-honored culinary traditions.
“It’s just homecooking, the good kind of food our ancestors were eating,” says Belmonte.
Ko Fairmont Kea Lani Resort Hotel
4100 Wailea Alanui Drive Kihei, HI 96753