A reader once sent us a thank you note — handwritten — specifically to thank us for including Spago in the book. “I eat at the original [Spago] all the time,” he wrote, “and when I read your review of the Maui location, I was suspicious. How could a resort version possibly capture the energy and passion I love? And why would I want to visit a chain restaurant in Maui? I was so wrong — and you were so right: it’s its own restaurant, but still belongs to Wolfgang Puck.”
We’re happy to hear this of course, particularly because we have never felt let down by this restaurant, either. Walking into Spago at the Four Seasons Resort Maui feels like an event. The dark paneled, glitzy bar is accented by fresh pincushion proteas. Giant orange and pink sea anemones reach out from huge, splashy prints in the lounge. It’s one of few places on Maui where your heels can’t be too high or your décolletage too glittery — a little extra glamour and bling fits right in. You might expect the food to falter in such a showy environment; instead, each dish is attended to with fastidious care.
Our single favorite item served in any Maui restaurant is the spicy ahi tuna poke in sesame miso cones. To make these little handfuls of love, fresh ahi is chopped and mixed (pureed?) thoroughly with chili aioli, the full-flavored Tosa soy sauce, plenty of green onions, pickled ginger, and the crunchy, brilliant orange tobiko (flying fish roe). Meanwhile, black and white sesame seeds are combined with a little flour, butter, corn syrup and miso paste, rolled into circles, baked, and carefully formed into little cones (one person does the cones, all night long). The ahi mix is carefully spooned into the cones, garnished, and slid into wooden carriers. The small portion is three, and the large is five. They are incredibly expensive — several dollars apiece — but we don’t regret ordering them. And if we need to, we order an extra one or two to round out the number and avoid petty fights.
(We’re spending a lot of time on this appetizer because it is emblematic of what you will find at Spago: layers of flavors carefully thought through and then enthusiastically assembled by people who know what works and how to execute night after night.)
When you bite into a cone, it does not crumble (the corn syrup, we think, lets it bend rather than snap), and you get at least two or three full bites out of each one. The spicy poke (which means “chopped fish”) dissolves on your tongue, sending spicy heat to the back of your throat and filling your entire mouth with flavor. While the fish brings the spice, the cone brings a crunchy/chewy texture and sweet, mellow, cool flavor. It’s like candy sushi. We were once treated to a veggie version, where diced hearts of palm replaced the ahi. Amazingly, it was just as good. So you see, we think you should order this appetizer.
Another delight is the Thai coconut soup with lobster. Kaffir lime, galangal, and chili mingle with bright vegetables cooked to their peak. The broth is impossibly light and flavorful, making us wonder if there is a Thai fairy godmother waving a wand in the kitchen.
Entrees we particularly like include the wok-fried moi (when it’s available; you might want to call ahead and ask). The fish, which at one time was only eaten by Hawaiian royalty, is small, exquisitely tender, white, and flaky. The preparation preserves all the moistness and keeps out the oil. Served over jasmine rice, shiitake mushrooms and hearts of palm, garnished with kaffir lime and Thai basil, it’s a great example of Thai flavors fusing with Hawaiian fish. The server will debone the fish for you tableside. There is nothing more special, in our opinion, than a properly prepared moi at Spago.
Neither of these dishes are budget items, but Spago is not a place to visit when you feel strapped for cash. However, we will point out that even the most inexpensive item on the entrée list, the pan-fried chicken, is ridiculously tasty. The chicken is delicate, moist, tender, and laid over a healthy helping of delicious, creamy mashed potatoes laced with local goat cheese and oyster mushrooms from upcountry Maui. Molly’s been known to crave this dish, even with all of the other excellent choices available.
Other entrées include grilled Chinois lamb chops (perfectly done every time we’ve had them), and diver scallops sautéed until tender and an interesting contrast to the spicy eggplant puree underneath. If you are a meat eater, we also like the simply prepared prime rib and the Japanese rib eye.
If you are a vegetarian, ask what the kitchen can do for you, because they can whip up a series of gorgeous courses just for you, based on your preferences and what is best that day. There is an unabashed love for ingredients here, and we think the true test of a chef’s creativity is how well he knows his vegetable garden. One course that stands out for us was a remarkable homage to the local tomato: a simple yet stunning shot glass of tomato water, a rich and foamy tomato “cappuccino,” and a delicate caprese salad sprinkled with teensy micro basil leaves.
Desserts are good — though the molten lava cake simply isn’t Roy’s chocolate soufflé. Instead try the lilikoi meringue pie: a tart passion fruit custard topped with snowy meringue. Fruity, fragrant, and not overly sweet.
The wine list is extensive and the guidance from servers and the sommelier is both professional and friendly. Service is exceptional, but be prepared for a leisurely pace to your evening. You will likely be at table for at least two hours, and you will not be rushed out the door. During that time, however, service will be attentive and well-paced. Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want here, or, alternately to place your fate in the hands of the very capable chef.
The beautiful, uber-chic restaurant has wonderful open-air sunset views, but can be a little breezy in the evenings, so if you get chilled and have a table on the rail, bring something to cover up. (And if you forget, the bend-over-backwards-to-please-staff will fetch you something.) Despite its romantic appeal, this restaurant can easily accommodate large groups and children who think restaurants are a treat. A three course keiki (children’s) menu will please most small fine diners with its cheese pizza appetizer, chicken fingers, steak, fish, pasta, and ice cream sandwich dessert.
Spago attends to every little detail, and does so with friendly, unpretentious, knowledgeable competence. It’s one of our favorite special occasion restaurants on Maui, and we recommend dining here.
Address: 3900 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, South Maui
Location: Four Seasons Resort
Hours: Nightly 6pm-9pm, bar open until 11pm