A cornerstone of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement, for two decades this foodie oasis in the middle of the pineapple fields has been serving well-made, comforting, and delicious meals. The drive out to the restaurant, which inhabits a renovated plantation store, is idyllic just before sunset, when a golden mist overtakes the surrounding fields. We used to feel this restaurant was a must-try for visitors — but the golden glow has faded for us, as it has for some of our upcountry friends who used to be regular-like-clockwork patrons.
Perhaps it is that the menu hasn’t changed in so long that it’s gotten stale … and the few newer items we’ve tasted haven’t been inspired. Celebrity chef Bev Gannon certainly works hard — she’s a terrific caterer — but something’s off, both here and at Gannon’s. As a New York City newspaper travel writer said when we shared a meal here, “now I see why you two have to revisit even the most reliable of restaurants — places go downhill when they rest on their laurels.”
We still recommend a visit if you want well-executed meals with good service — just stick to the reliable dishes. For example, our long-time favorite appetizer, the Sashimi Napoleon, still makes us curl our toes with happiness. Layers of sashimi, smoked salmon, caviar, and won tons stack up on a bed of crisp salad greens laced with tobiko caviar and wasabi vinaigrette. The whole contraption looks delicate, but it’s tougher than you would think to destroy it with a chopstick or a steak knife and render it into bites. Your server is happy to do the honors and demonstrate how to chop it for you. The smoky, spicy, sweet flavors with the crisp, crunchy, silky smooth textures define pleasure. The “crab” pizza is famous, but it’s never been our favorite, and that hasn’t changed.
The seasonal fish dishes are generally reliable, including the macadamia nut preparation with the killer mango lilikoi butter sauce. We also like the peppery-but-sweet Thai chili sauce on the seared ahi dish.
Chef Gannon always does ribs well, and we still like the baby back ribs with spicy, tangy, sweet barbecue sauce. The mashed potatoes that come with many dishes are noteworthy for their creamy texture and buttery flavor. If you are looking for something a tad lighter, the simply prepared roast chicken dish usually features astringent asparagus extravagantly wrapped with prosciutto. (It’s only a tad lighter.)
The desserts are as rich as the main courses, including a too-sweet pineapple upside down cake and one of James’s all-time favorite desserts: a chocolate pastry shell filled with caramel and chocolate and macadamia nuts, topped with whipped cream.
Special mention must be made of the drinks, because the bartenders here love their work and make killer cocktails (though they can be slow to deliver). Our favorite is their mai tai, which is served in a hollowed out pineapple. The pineapple juice comes from the walls of the fruit, so we recommend waiting for your first sip until after the concoction marinates for at least two minutes. It’s worth the wait for one of the freshest, most delicious versions on the island.
The restaurant’s setting is kitchen-kitsch: bold colors, big ceramics, lots of framed photos of Chef Gannon and her celebrity clients. The front room of the restaurant is loud. The quieter back room is better for larger groups, and the walls double as a rotating gallery exhibit of some of Maui’s best artists. Each new collection is based on a single theme and it’s fun to guess what it is while studying the diverse paintings.
One of the first female celebrity chefs and one of the twelve founders of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, Bev Gannon does carefully hire her servers. They genuinely love food and really get to know her menu and recipes, so the service is both attentive and a celebration of your meal.
Occasionally, the restaurant offers a substantial discount if you bring in a canned good to donate to the Maui Food Bank. It’s also always a good idea to call or check the website for special deals. If you dine here you can present your receipt to either Gannon’s or Joe’s Bar & Grill for a discount within a certain time frame.
Address: 900 Hali’imaile Rd., Makawao, Upcountry
Location: Turn from Baldwin Ave. or Haleakala Highway
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: M-F 11am-2:30pm; Nightly 5:30pm-9:30pm