Mala Ocean Tavern is one of our favorite restaurants because it serves fantastic food in a lively, casual restaurant smack dab on the water. We don’t come here when we want an intimate, romantic meal — the tables are so close you’re likely to find out a lot about your neighbors — but when we want to celebrate with friends, or just have a beer at sunset, this is our pick.
The fabulous Maui Chef Mark Ellman — other restaurants include Penne Pasta, the original Maui Tacos, the fabled (and long-closed) Avalon and the new Honu next door — has crafted a menu packed with a long list of small tapas-sized dishes and plenty of hearty entrées. His skill with flavors and his insistence on local, organic, and healthy ingredients makes his food both opinionated (he insists on telling you that the dark, flavorful bread is made with flax seed) and dastardly delicious.
The pale green edamame dip that comes with your water says a lot about the meal to come — nothing is going to be done exactly as expected, but everything will be done with care and attention, and all surprises will be good ones (like the spicy salsa served at the same time, which stirs up the edamame’s mild flavors).
The crunchy, panko-crusted calamari is one of our favorite items on the menu (and on the island). The fish is lightly battered and just barely fried, so it stays delicate and tender. The accompanying aioli and the mojo verde (pesto made from cilantro and tomatillos) are addictive. We ration it. We also like the ahi “tartare” — chopped fish, capers, lemon, red onion on slices of crispy lavosh bread.
The burger is made with Kobe beef, Applewood bacon, caramelized onions, and blue cheese, and, when cooked medium, is perfect. We love the baby back ribs mainly for the voluptuous sauce. The seared sashimi with a shiitake mushroom ginger sauce is earthy and spicy, and the Yukon gold potatoes on the side are mellow and buttery. The adult mac and cheese is a dish to which we’d normally turn up our noses, but here, we have to admit: it’s divine. We can hardly wait for the molten layer of mozzarella, pecorino and Maytag blue cheese to cool enough to eat. Delectably crisp on the edges, the cheesy crust gives way to juicy Ali’i mushrooms and macaroni aswim in rich sauce.
When in season, get the opakapaka, or pink snapper, in whatever preparation is on the menu. When they have it, the wok-fried moi is incredibly tender, and the ginger black bean sauce is as good as Spago’s.
The vegetable sides here are outstanding, and represent one of the island’s best bangs for the buck. Heaping portions of spicy sugar snap peas doused in fiery sambal and ginger sauce, Brussels sprouts charred in butter till caramelized, and gem-like purple sweet potatoes can be had for a fraction of an entrée price — but could easily serve as dinner when combined.
Lunches are less expensive and excellent, and their weekend brunch menu is wonderful (French toast fans, this one’s for you). While the atmosphere is totally different, we recommend heading here over Sea House, and certainly Gazebo, if you’re in the mood for a good brunch on Saturday or Sunday.
If you’re here at Happy Hour, they have good drink specials and many of the small plates are available. We’ve sat on the lanai many times to watch the water and the turtles — sometimes dozens of them — feed on the rocks just below the restaurant at low tide. The wine list is selective, and there is a good selection of beers on tap. Service is generally very good, although there are some quirky personalities at both locations.
We rate Mala Ocean Tavern a 4 for ambience, but Mala Wailea doesn’t warrant the same top rating. It has the sort of clunky hotel restaurant atmosphere that just can’t be helped when you’re in a Marriott. The big chairs and long tables and rather disjointed spaces — from lounge to lanai to dining room — make for a very different feeling than the Lahaina location. The view is nice, overlooking the Marriott’s pool and the beach walk below, with Molokini beyond, but the farther inside the restaurant you are, the less relevant it is, and the more aware you are of the self-conscious décor. There is substantially more room here, however, and if you’re with a big party you can expect to be situated in a nice, relatively private alcove of your own. The menu is the same in Wailea as in Lahaina, and the kitchen is finally executing at a level comparable with the mother location. We have come to love the Happy Hour in Wailea almost as much, even without the turtles. Both locations feature absolutely top-notch bartenders who can deliver if you ask them to make you something special.
Address: 1307 Front St., Lahaina, West Maui
Location: Across from Lahaina Cannery Mall
Meals: Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch, Dinner
Hours: M-F 11am-9:30pm; Sa 9am-9:30pm; Su 9am-9pm
Parking: Lot, Street
Address: 3700 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, South Maui
Location: Wailea Beach Marriott Resort
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner
Hours: Daily 6:30am-11am; 5:30pm-9:30pm; bar 5pm-10pm
Parking: Valet, Lot