By all rights Merriman’s Kapalua should be one of the best restaurants on the island. Chef Owner Peter Merriman is a founder of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine and famous for his eponymous restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaii. He’s also played a big part in encouraging local farmers to raise delicious and organic produce. Unfortunately, all of the passion and quality we associate with him have not been coming through in the food or the service at this very expensive restaurant. The restaurant’s record was 0 for 8, until our most recent visit, right before publication. Now they are 1 for 9.
Chef Merriman has been doing something right at his flagship Waimea restaurant, which is as popular as it was twenty years ago, so perhaps sending his top chef over to the Kapalua location is an attempt to correct some of the problems that have plagued this restaurant (desperately salty food, poor execution of otherwise decent-seeming recipes, startlingly bad service).
Rather than go over our many notes on failed dishes and dismal evenings, we’ll give you the highlights of this one last visit, in hopes that it augurs a shift in the restaurant’s potential to live up to its stunning, jewel-like setting.
This is one of the prettiest places on Maui. Located on Kapalua Bay, its dark wood, open walls, gentle breezes, shimmery tiled ceiling make an enchanting place to dine. There’s an enormous lanai below the restaurant, complete with a copper fire pit, and sitting out there under the deep dark spangly night sky is enchanting. On the night in question, we didn’t sit out here, but we had occasion to skirt its edges, more than once, due to an odd automobile situation.
We have mixed feelings about mandatory valet parking, and this evening demonstrated one reason why. As we pulled in, the lot had plenty of room, partly because there were so many cars parked on the circular drive, tilted, half on the curb. Not interested in putting our car in what looked like a precarious position, we asked if we could park ourselves, and the valet directed us to the public beach next door. Fine. Well, it would have been fine, if he’d also indicated how to find the restaurant from the lot in the dark. The lot is fenced and without lighting: we were at a loss. Ultimately, we hiked up a steep grass slope to enter Merriman’s from the back. Not an auspicious start to our evening.
We perked up when led to a table against the rail, where a handful of other diners also clustered. (The bar area, on the other hand, fairly bustled.) Our waiter appeared promptly and rattled off the specials, answering our questions with knowledge and friendly competence. We ordered cocktails and a few items.
We started with the pupu taster, which is a large square platter with four small plates, each containing one of the evening’s featured appetizers. It arrived within minutes — almost suspiciously fast — and before our cocktails. The offerings were fine, with a few exceptions. The best was the miniature tomato salad: a vibrant tomato topped with a smear of avocado cream and morsels of Keahole lobster. The tempura-fried goat cheese was a pleasant ball of warm, creamy chevre (local, from Surfing Goat Dairy) with a thin crisp crust, too-sparsely garnished with slivered onions in mint vinaigrette and strawberry. The Kalua pig and sweet onion quesadilla was standard fare, enlivened just slightly by the house-made kim chee and a liquefied mango chili dipping sauce. The ahi sashimi was disappointing — a tad mealy, as if it had been sitting for a while — and the accompanying pohole fern and tomato salad was limp and duller in color than we expect. Pohole ferns are crunchy and bright green when fresh and degrade to a duller color and gummy texture when they’ve sat for too long. These weren’t yet old, but they certainly weren’t fresh, and looked and tasted as if they’d been made too early in the day to serve now.
The lobster bisque was beautiful: cinnabar liquid studded with creamy white chunks. It tasted delicious, too — but calling it lobster bisque is a cruel joke. There was no lobster … at least not in the flesh. The sumptuous, tomato-based broth must have been cooked with lobster shells, as it had a rich, unmistakably lobster-y aroma … but those creamy white chunks were not lobster meat. They were hearts of palm. Their stiff crunch felt like a trick. We flagged down our waiter to ask “Where’s the lobster?”
No luck. Our server was clearly feeling stretched too thin, and was simply not available. It was then that we realized we had never received our cocktails. Was this an issue at the bar, or had the order never been placed? We never found out (or got a drink). As the next course arrived, practically on the heels of our “lobster” bisque, we gave up on solving the mysteries of soup and spirits.
Our half portion of the opakapaka special arrived, which was lovely, moist and flaky, beneath its thick, crunchy crust of sesame seeds. A nice hint of heat emerged with each bite, and we delighted in the light but chewy morsels of eggplant spaetzli that surrounded the filet. Properly cooked fish, we noted; a nice change from the raw-in-the-middle or rubbery-like-a-tire preparations we’ve had here previously.
Lamb is served in a different fashion each night, and tonight’s edition featured both meat from the leg (grilled) and shoulder (stewed). The lamb was cooked perfectly. The leg meat had a prime char and a nice honeyed taste — evidence of a quality spice rub. The shoulder was tender and bursting with flavor, and the complex, thick sauce was punctuated by star anise. The seasonings were perfect — not even a pinch too much salt — and the smooth-whipped garlic mashed potatoes and gently braised kale were both just lovely. Hurrah!
Desserts have traditionally been very good here, and we were pleased to find that this is still true. The chocolate purse dessert is the deepest, darkest, most decadent we’ve ever had and beats out Roy’s chocolate soufflé for flavor, texture, and certainly for creativity. A cinched pocket of baked phyllo dough gives way to dark, mousse-like Waialua chocolate. The ribbons of Earl-Grey-scented caramel decorating the plate are a perfect enhancement to the chocolate and phyllo, along with a vanilla ice cream speckled with bits of bean.
Overall, the evening was a marginal success. Dishes were decent, although we can’t say anything was over-the-top outstanding (and some of those appetizers did not feel prepared to order, and the hearts-of-palm-for-lobster trick still galled). The portions were exactly enough to sate our hunger. Service was spotty, but not so much that it ruined our experience. We weren’t angry or defeated, as we have been at the end of previous meals. We really want to like this restaurant, and we really don’t want to see it sink into the [tourist] trap: relying on the romantic location to feed its guests. With this new menu, the kitchen has taken steps in the right direction. Perhaps things are turning around.
We were in for one final shock, however. When the bill arrived, we were stunned by the $40 charge for the half order of opakapaka. Since the average price of full-size entrées listed on the menu was $37, we could hardly have expected a half portion to exceed that. Upon inquiry, we learned that the full portion of opakapaka cost $47. Had we known, we certainly would have opted to pay seven dollars more for double the amount of fish. We felt tricked — again. At least they didn’t charge us for the drinks we’d never had.
On our way out, we scrambled back down the hillside, along with another couple struggling even more than we were. A few strong lanterns are needed before someone takes a tumble. Back in our car — safely parked on level ground — we agreed that we cannot recommend this restaurant with confidence, yet, but that we can raise their ratings, slightly, conservatively. Perhaps Merriman’s Kapalua is addressing some of its problems — most of which are pretty basic. We certainly hope so, because this location — and your taste buds — are worth a great restaurant.
Address: 1 Bay Drive, Kapalua, West Maui
Location: in the Bay Club
Hours: Daily 5:00pm – 9:00pm; Bar Menu, Su- Sa 3:00pm – 8:30pm; Happy Hour, M- F 3:00pm – 4:30pm