Capische? is one of a handful of Maui restaurants that could compete in the fiercely competitive markets of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or D.C., and we deeply appreciate them for running their business as if every meal — and every diner — counts. It remains our favorite place on Maui for a romantic, no-holds barred (read: very expensive and very special) dinner.
The Hotel Wailea has a spectacular water feature that welcomes you with a koi pond at the entrance and then falls to flow underneath the hotel (Yes! Underneath!) into pools farther down the property. Unless you have already dined here and are somehow bored with the gemlike setting, we highly recommend making your reservation for just before sunset so that you can really appreciate the ambience and read your menu (the restaurant is very dim after dark — so dark they think to bring a small flashlight with the bill).
Every table is outside, and most are on the rail overlooking the garden, the resort’s villas, and finally, the lush volcano slope rolling down to the Pacific and the islands of Kaho’olawe, Molokini, and Lana’i. For a completely different feel, ask for a seat in the fragrant herb garden. And for the most exclusive experience, ask for reservations in their private dining room, Il Teatro (more about that in a minute).
The menu is creative and fresh Northern Italian with some French influences. While there are several standards that consistently please, it changes with the seasons and with the availability of local produce. Desperately fresh ingredients prepared perfectly are the key to the menu’s outrageous success, which is why Chef Owner Brian Etheredge cultivates a vegetable garden at his home in addition to his herb garden at the restaurant, and brings in much of his produce from Hana Fresh in Hana and Michael McCoy, a farmer in Kula. Local fishermen know to stop by with that morning’s catch. Beef and other meats are generally from high-end mainland purveyors (Snake River Farms is one), but that is not unusual at Maui’s best restaurants. Local ranchers have not yet been able to provide a product good enough for truly fine dining. (And Maui needs a good butcher: some cuts we’ve had of local beef are rendered almost inedible by the … ermm … butchering.)
There is as much care and attention put into the appetizers at Capische? as into the entrées, and we often end up ordering more than one. (The kitchen is happy to split appetizers on two plates and bring them as separate courses.) We have several favorites worth mentioning to you. The Caesar salad: a head of Romaine lettuce is quartered and left undefended before the onslaught of shaved parmesan cheese and homemade croutons. This is drizzled with a garlicky, creamy sauce with a shot of balsamic vinegar to pucker it up.
Another favorite is the beef carpaccio braciola. Beef tartare is sliced thin, pounded thinner, and used to coat the bottom of a platter. An herb and greens salad is tossed thoroughly with tangy mustard vinaigrette and mounded with diced onions and fried capers (heavenly salty-crunchy capers) on top of the beef. Taken together the flavors dance a tango on your tongue — spicy and sultry, warm with that ineffable ingredient we call Love.
NB: The first time Molly ate this (in a rolled version, which you might request) she blushed and couldn’t speak for several minutes. When she did, she said, “Either the chef is deeply in love with me, or he is deeply in love with this dish.” It was like a scene from Like Water for Chocolate.
If the ahi bruschetta calls to you, answer. Perfectly seared ahi reclines on a slice of garlic toast while olives, capers, and a divine truffle aioli tumble onto the plate. It’s hard to choose a favorite item, but if we had to, it might be the kabocha pumpkin gnocchi. Bathed in lavender brown butter, it’s perfectly salty seared, and literally — we hate using such trite language, but it’s the best way to say it — melts in your mouth. (We promise to not use that phrase again.)
The caprese salad tastes so fresh we wonder if the basil and tomato were literally picked that hour, and the quail saltimbocca — wrapped in applewood bacon and laced with brown butter sauce — inspires one to bad table manners. We nearly always end up ordering at least one fish entrée at Capische? because here the exquisite Hawaiian species are deeply respected. We’ve never had a piece of fish anything other than perfectly cooked. To this day, the best fish of our life was an opakapaka (pink snapper) poached in olive oil barely floating in a pool of parsley pesto, topped with a salad of micro greens. The olive oil carefully sealed off the tender flesh and let it blossom into full flavor. The parsley pesto — a beautiful bright emerald — was fresh, light, and the perfect complement to the snapper. Chef Brian and Chris Kulis, his sous chef, know how to let the fish’s natural flavors shine without mucking it up with too much other … stuff.
If you’re in the mood for meat, the choices usually include Snake River Farms Wagyu (American Kobe) beef and Kurobuta the Kobe beef of pork. While not local, it is the best, and we never regret ordering it from this kitchen. We are not as big a fan of the pastas as some of our readers are, but that is more a function of how much else there is to enjoy, rather than a reflection of the pastas themselves. An exception: the ravioli, which comes in all colors as strikes the chefs’ fancy. If it’s black squid ink, orange pumpkin, or red roasted pepper, avail yourself. They’re edible artwork. A perennial favorite is the signature cioppino of Kona lobster tail, shrimp, scallop, clams, fish, and king crab legs simmered in a savory, rich tomato saffron broth and ladled over al dente capellini pasta.
The servers are knowledgeable and many of them spend some time in the kitchen themselves, so do not be afraid to ask their opinion about the menu. Some will offer it whether solicited or not — we’re not the only ones who have encountered service that suddenly veers away from relaxed and friendly to slightly panicked in its over-solicitousness — but regardless of individual mannerisms, they are well trained in the menu and can be relied upon for advice. They also hustle, and this is still one of the few places on Maui where if we ask for something, we get it nearly immediately. After dining here, we often have to remind ourselves to ratchet our service expectations down a notch or two at the next evening’s restaurant.
The award-winning wine list should be shopped, and room in your evening’s budget should definitely be reserved for one of their drop-dead delicious martinis (more on those below). We’re afraid that we still do not love the desserts here, although we make exception for the sorbets made in house. You might not have room for anything more, anyway.
We spend at a minimum one special occasion every year at Capische? and often more than one. If you are celebrating, are ready to spend some money, and don’t want to feel hurried (like you would be at Mama’s Fish House, for example), this is our favorite choice.
For a truly exceptional experience, ask about Il Teatro, the private dining room off the herb garden, where the chef will cook a five course dinner for you personally at tableside. The opportunity to watch either of these Culinary Institute of America grads in action is spendy but worth it if you consider yourself a “foodie.” You’ll be treated to a professional cooking class — with some comedy — and an unforgettable meal. The room has two tables of ten, so depending upon how many other people are interested — or how big a party you have — it may or may not be available when you want to go. If you book a table at Il Teatro, you might consider hiring transportation to complete the fantasy evening.
If you are on a budget, the wonderful Happy Hour might be the way to go. The special menu includes $10 items that are not available at table, including a gorgeous antipasto board with salty-vinegary relishes made in house, and a lamb and mushroom ragu that is so satisfying you may not need a meal afterward. The ahi carpaccio is a revelation — the sashimi grade fish is sliced perilously thin, the local radishes also, and those fried capers stud the plate alongside sand-sized grains of sea salt. Delish. Drinks are half off for Happy Hour, which makes us very happy, because the bartenders are some of the best on the island. Mixology is an art, and some bartenders take a Jackson Pollack approach — throw a bunch of liquor together and see what sticks. It takes a great deal of restraint and creativity to combine alcohols and fruits and other flavorings in delicious ways, and we’ve been happy with each drink we’ve tried. The French Pear is a particular favorite: sparkling wine, vodka, and St. Germain, the liqueur made from handpicked elderflowers. Sweet, but not too, and luscious in its texture, it is perfectly clear and does not look nearly as frou-frou as it sounds. Another winner is the Watermelon mint martini: bright and clean and sparkly. If you’re a fan of artisanal gins, The Hayman’s Garden is a must-try: Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, with lime sour, grapefruit juice, cherry liqueur, and rosemary — the fruit and vegetal notes are subtle, with a kick in the back of the throat that’s energizing. These and the other $8 cocktails will put you well on the way to happy during the very civilized hours of 5-6:30pm. And if you feel so inspired, you can order from the full menu, even in the bar.
Capische? is not the most Hawaiian of restaurants, but it remains our favorite on Maui, and we’re happy to see so many locals and visitors returning, and so many special events booking their parties here. (Note to brides: this is where we would want to celebrate our nuptials on Maui … and there’s a cupola on the grounds for the ceremony.) With seasonal kama’aina discounts and the new Happy Hour, no one has a reason to skip a visit.
Address: 555 Kaukahi St., Wailea, South Maui
Location: at the Hotel Wailea, this used to be called the Diamond Resort
Hours: Nightly 5:30-9:30pm