The signature restaurant at The Grand Wailea floats in a lagoon stocked with umilu, brilliant turquoise fish whose fins gracefully cut the surface as they circle meditatively. The open air restaurant has a thatched roof, tiki torches, and a large central bar with a wraparound fish tank — home to at least one brightly painted humu (the restaurant’s namesake, which translates to “fish with a nose like a pig”). The sunset view is unbelievable and the setting positively theatrical. The temptation must be mighty to allow the ambience to do most of the work, but that’s usually not what we find.
Chef Isaac Bancaco is a local boy who spent several years in trendy kitchens in Boston and L.A. before returning to his roots. Evidence of his commitment to uber-fresh Maui-grown produce is everywhere on his seasonal menu (which changes quarterly) and his prix fixe farmer’s menus (which ahi traps and the catch-your-own-lobster. Since the restaurant opened nearly two decades ago, the “traps” have entrapped many a hungry diner, including ourselves. Morsels of glistening red ahi are stabbed with lemongrass stalks, wrapped in nori and fried. The result is a crunchy, soft, fragrant, salty, mouthful of goodness — albeit a pricey one at $16 for four bites. The catch-your-own lobster is self-explanatory — only at Humu, you get to reel your bristling Hawaiian spiny lobster up from the saltwater lagoon. (Before invoking your inner Hemingway and reaching for the biggest bad boy, you might want to keep the price tag in mind: $52-58 per pound; minimum 2 lbs.)
As we mentioned, the menu shifts seasonally, and most often, the new offerings are good ideas executed well. When we went last, the hamachi carpaccio was a colorful treat, seasoned with black Hawaiian salt, fiery chili, and yuzu (an intensely fragrant Japanese citrus), and topped with tiny snowballs of celery ginger granite. The scallops (available as an appetizer or entrée) came stacked: each huge, nicely seared scallop sat atop a fantastic coconut rice croquette and a layer of braised greens, crowned by a fresh mandarin slice. It’s a pretty presentation, but we wished for a punchier counterpoint to the sweetness — perhaps a tad more of the electric green basil oil that decorated the plate?
The Kobe short ribs were first seared in mustard then braised for five hours in dashi. Ours were fatty but, we confess, heavenly. We spooned all of the meat’s lingering juices up with the heart of palm potatoes and nearly licked the plate clean.
At another visit, this time during a five-course prix fixe affair — (these are offered regularly, check the website) two courses featured crab and mahi mahi “two ways.” The first way, as a crudo, was well-executed, but unexciting and unsurprising. The second way was a tempura with a curiously bland curry sauce that did not like being paired with that crab: the two fought so ferociously most of us left it in our bowls, barely touched. (The mahi mahi, on the other hand, loved this preparation.) Later there was a perfectly done lamb course with a wine reduction so excellent we reached for our spoons, followed by the aforementioned short ribs. These big dinners are challenging, there is no doubt. The chef ’s challenge is to create a soup-to-nuts meal that, hopefully, surprises and delights with each turn out of the kitchen. The food is well-prepared, and the price is right — we just wish each course was consistently delicious, because otherwise the evening can turn into a challenge for the diners.
Service historically has been slow — both in the kitchen and on the floor — and it still drags. Because of this, we prefer the tables edging the bar to those in the dark, cavernous dining room. They’re serviced by the cocktail waitresses who hustle a little more — plus there’s that gajillion-gallon fish tank to gaze at in the interim. We vacillate on the bar’s ostentatious drinks: sometimes we’re genuinely in the mood for an outrageous Disneyland tropical libation served in a whole coconut or decorative tiki mug. But at these prices ($14-$36 per beverage), not often.
While some of the menu items are exorbitantly priced, the majority are average for Wailea. Check the restaurant’s website for specials — as we went to press, they were offering 50 percent off lobster entrées before 6:30pm.
Address: 3850 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, South Maui
Location: Grand Wailea Resort
Hours: Nightly 5:30pm-9:00pm
Parking: Lot, Valet