I’o’s Chef Owner James McDonald is so dedicated to fresh, local ingredients he started his own organic farm in Kula. After nearly a decade in operation, O’o Farms supplies the vast majority of produce and herbs to his restaurants I’o and Pacific’o. Feast at Lele, his lu’au, also benefits from this farm’s largesse.
Chef James’s drive to wow the diner is evident in the evolution of his food, and this makes him one of our very favorite chefs on the island. While Pacific’o stays true to his fusion roots serving the exciting, bold flavors that put him on the beach in Lahaina in the first place, I’o, just next door, now takes a simpler approach. Chef James’s commitment to food is fundamental: extraordinary ingredients — he buys fish from fishermen who land just offshore to show him the day’s catch — prepared as simply as possible.
The clean flavors and sheer sensuality of his signature dishes often gets us at a gut level (pardon the pun) … but it also engages us intellectually and emotionally. Try the crab cake that spills its solid lumps from a light panko crust with a luxurious miso aioli on the side. Don’t miss the fresh and delectable green papaya coleslaw that beds the cake. One of our favorite salads is the perfectly roasted beets, drizzled with a rich pesto and kissed by creamy, salty feta cheese.
Now … for the entrées. It pains us to say this, but the newest additions to the menu take simplicity too far. We know Chef James has his heart in the right place and he has mad skills to back his passion up. But recently, he seems to have taken a detour by deconstructing his dishes, perhaps too severely. Proteins, vegetables, and starches are served individually. First you choose from the hot or cold greens, then from a “risotto bar,” and finally add a fish or meat. We so trust his palate and his guidance on this menu that we end up lost. On several visits in the last year, we felt we ordered badly (and received little guidance from the waiter). As each dish arrived — a perfectly cooked opah filet lonely and unadorned in a pool of sauce (a rich but undistinguished goat cheese fondue), a carrot risotto — we realized that we needed those greens that we had neglected to order (nothing had called to us). The O’o Farm medley — a bowl of roasted sweet potatoes, squash, and shallots — promised to remedy the imbalance. But what may have been a lovely meal on one plate, where the ingredients could work together, was a disappointment when served separately. None of the dishes had enough star power to stand on their own. The love seems to be slipping in the kitchen, too — that risotto was not nearly as brilliant as we’ve had in the past. Not as bright, too crunchy. The vegetables were slightly charred.
Luckily, many of Chef McDonald’s top entrées are still on the menu, intact: the “Crabby Catch,” a light but hedonistic combination of oven-roasted fish and crab salad, and the “Lamb Pa,” a trio of perfectly grilled chops doused in Madras curry sauce. Another favorite, the succulent “Three Little Pigs,” garlicky, braised pork cheek medallions, are available a la carte.
The wine list is highly rated, and each item on the menu lists a wine suggestion. The large number of wines by the glass is a sign that the owners (Chef James has two business partners) care about your experience — they are willing to break open a bottle for just one serving. The martinis are excellent.
We love the beachfront location — spectacular at sunset — and the modern lines and colors on the interior. Despite the romantic garden seating, we choose to sit on the rail inside because Feast at Lele, Chef James’s beautiful lu’au experience, is right next door. While we enjoy hearing the music, it can be a little loud if you’re outside.
The waiters generally know food, and know the menu, but they (or the kitchen?) can be very slow, and at times we’ve had a dish arrive cooler than it should be because of it. Plan for a leisurely paced meal, and keep the bread on the table.
While this latest menu isn’t our favorite, we’re 100% confident that Chef James will wow us again in the near future.
Address: 505 Front St., Lahaina, West Maui
Hours: Nightly 5:30-10pm
Parking: Lot, Street