The Banyan Tree at the Ritz Carlton Resort in Kapalua is one of the finest restaurants on Maui, and would hold its own in any big city. Sequestered down by the resort’s pool, we imagine the hotel’s architect did not plan for this to be the resort’s premiere dining spot. Luckily, the casual elegance of the open walls and glossy wood tables offers a pleasing counterpoint to the preciselycrafted, refined cuisine. Chef Jojo Vasquez, who returned to the Banyan Tree’s helm after a threeyear whirlwind tour as sous chef to “Iron Chef ” Morimoto, has the irrepressible enthusiasm of a child and the laser-like precision of a master. We’re sooo glad he’s back. His time with Morimoto-san clearly sharpened his personal quest for creative, boundary-pushing cuisine.
If you aren’t feeling particularly adventurous, this might not be the restaurant for you. We consider its departure from the norm an absolute treat from beginning to end. Let’s start with the bread. We usually don’t review bread on Maui, since it nearly always ranges from just passable to disappointing (as we’ve said elsewhere, it’s the clean air — no bacteria = no crust). However, the tradition at The Banyan Tree of serving the Egyptian spice mix dukkah with the sesame bread must be mentioned.
The bread is soft and pleasant and a perfect transportation device for the dukkah. We often find ourselves finishing the entire loaf as we dip piece after piece into the dish of high quality olive oil, then into the crumbly mix of spices, nuts, and seeds. Dukkah means “coarsely ground” in Arabic, but we translate it as “heavenly.” Also heavenly is the Surfing Goat Dairy starter which pairs feta with roasted beets, red quinoa salad, and champagne vinegar. Or the hamachi crudo accompanied by dehydrated red peppers — delectably crisp wafers that melt against the fish.
The seafood sausage appetizer, served with salmon roe, is decadent, and the pork belly steamed buns are less of a departure, but entirely satisfying. Chef Vasquez’s culinary fireworks include crisps, caviars, gels, foams, and dusts: the essence of an ingredient is isolated and presented in a novel way that often delights us, despite our knee-jerk aversion to molecular gastronomy in general. He particularly excels at tucking Persian and South East Asian influences into the menu here and there. The cumin crusted hapu (sea bass) served with harissa, a Tunisian chili sauce, is a welcome departure from the usual island-style seasonings, as is the steamed branzino (also a sea bass), which floats above the most delicate and delectable mushroom broth we’ve ever had. The drizzle of scallion oil and the crunchy leeks on top complement the tender fish perfectly; we had to pause, just for a moment, to appreciate the perfection of this dish. Chef Vasquez knows how to prepare and present fish.
We can’t resist recommending the rib eye. The sous vide preparation — which involves submerging the vacuum-packed meat in gently boiling water — results in steak that is uniformly cooked and bright pink to its edges. Its moisture and tenderness are retained at their peak. While the rib eye may seem beyond the pale in terms of price, we have not once regretted ordering it. While most fine restaurants on Maui can satisfy vegetarians, Banyan Tree lavishes them with a veritable cornucopia, including vegetarian entrées, sides, and a sampler of marinated shiitake mushrooms, turmeric-scented cauliflower, and a mushy but potent eggplant puree.
Desserts continue in the adventurous vein. A peanut butter parfait is served alongside a space-age vermillion globe that bursts with strawberry flavor against your palate. We especially like the house-made sorbets and ice creams: lavender, crème fraiche, and kinako (soybean flour — unusual, but tasty). The chocolate tasting dessert may seem too small — each of the three treats are the size of a Kit Kat bar — but it packs an outsize, intense chocolate experience. (Warning: ladies who enjoy chocolate, please be discreet … it’s not polite to moan loudly in public. Get it?) The adage “you get what you pay for” certainly applies, as you’ll see when you glance over the menu. This is one of the most expensive restaurants on the island, but it’s one of the very few where we leave feeling we actually got our money’s worth.
There are some ways to cut back on the bill, and we recommend you take advantage of them. For example, each month the restaurant hosts a different winery for a chef ’s tasting menu, which is available throughout the month. At $130 per person for four courses paired with wines, it’s not just an outstanding deal; it’s also an opportunity to let the chef arrange an optimal succession of tastes. The featured wineries have included Cakebread and Stag’s Leap.
Another terrific savings occurs only on Wednesdays, when you can enjoy any bottle of wine for fifty percent off. And if you have a Hawaiian ID, you have no excuse — book your next special meal at The Banyan Tree for one of the best kama’aina deals on the island. Service is usually good, and some servers are great.
While the table settings are less formal than the prices would indicate (checkered napkins and table runners?), we don’t care one whit once we taste the absolutely delicious food. Make your romantic evening complete with a post-meal stargazing session on the resort’s quiet grounds.
Address: 1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Kapalua, West Maui
Location: At the Ritz-Carlton Resort
Hours: Tu-Sa 5:30pm-9:30pm
Parking: Valet, Lot