Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Maui Trip 2019: Maui Chef's Table and Mama's Fish House

A scallop dish, the second to last savory course from our dinner at Maui Chef's Table. I think this might have been the best single dish I've ever had! (And I've been to some really nice places in NYC, mostly for work...) Sadly, I'm not a great talent when it comes to food photography (or iPhone photography in general), so my photos don't do justice to the food.

As promised, here is my second and last post about our recent family trip to Maui, focusing on some of the delicious food that my mom, my sister, and I got to try. 

In actuality, I'm normally not an extremely food-focused traveler: I greatly appreciate and value good food, of course, and particularly enjoy having tasty street food or hawker center food on my trips, but my travel plans generally don't prioritize food. We often don't have many specific restaurants we want to try, for instance. K and I will generally do one fancy meal on our longer trips (for example, I booked him a birthday lunch at Tin Lung Heen at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong a few years back), but that's about it. On this vacation though, some of our plans focused very much on food. Specifically, I booked reservations for us at two of the most popular fine dining attractions in Maui: We did the Maui Chef's Table, a once-a-week (usually Saturdays) tasting menu and fine dining experience and we also went to Mama's Fish House, a well-known local restaurant. 

First up, a few details about food expenses generally when traveling to Maui. As I mentioned in my last post, restaurants tend to be quite expensive, maybe a little more than I'm used to, even in NYC (~$15/meal at fast casual places and closer to ~$25/entree at nicer sit-down places seemed typical for Maui), at least in the tourist-focused areas we frequented (Lahaina, the Kaanapali Beach area, etc.). It's probably the first destination where I felt strongly that it would be a good idea to get a hotel room, suite, or other lodging with a kitchenette, and to rely in significant part on cooking food from grocery stores for at least a few meals, particularly breakfasts. There was a large Safeway in Lahaina that we stopped at a few times, and there's also a Costco near the airport that many tourists go to before driving out to where they're staying. 

That's not to say the restaurant food is a bad value! I enjoyed pretty much everything we had, whether from a fast casual place or a slightly fancier sit-down place. (More fast casual-leaning places we liked included Joey's Kitchen in the Whaler's Village shopping center food court and Ono Kau Kau.) It's just that the prices on the menus give such sticker shock, even to people used to very HCOL areas like NYC or the Bay Area, that one can't help but start thinking about ways to save on food costs during any future trips. Grocery stores and Costco in Hawaii also have really good poke, by the way, good enough that it'll ruin you for ever eating that dish again anywhere else in the world. (One of my favorite comic artists on Instagram, @dami_lee, recently made this exact observation in one of her comics.) 

Please follow the link below to read about our experiences at Maui Chef's Table and Mama's Fish House, both of which we greatly enjoyed.

It's difficult to understate how popular Mama's Fish House is. Reservations are definitely required for dinner, and probably should be made more than a week ahead. I made our reservation for Mother's Day at least a month and a half in advance, and was only able to get a reservation for 7:30 PM on OpenTable, which is close to their last seating of the night (they close at 9:00 PM). As our tour guide for the Road to Hana trip mentioned when we drove past Paia, the town where Mama's Fish House is located, one should expect to spend at least $50/person (~$35+/entree) when dining there. That's quite fancy!

The raw oyster appetizer, which was delicious and very fresh. Our fish entrees didn't photograph as well, unfortunately!

Although that ~$50/person average cost is objectively pricey, I must admit that it... actually also isn't that "out there" or shocking a number to me (particularly for seafood-focused dishes), given that I live in and frequently eat out in NYC. That's true even if K and I tend to stick to places more in the range of our more modestly priced favorite restaurants most of the time. (I should note that, with inflation, it's no longer really possible to dine for ~$20/person with tax and tip included at most of the same restaurants now. Prices have generally gone up by a dollar or two for my typical orders in the years since. Separately, we've also had a bit of lifestyle inflation in that we tend to add on an appetizer or drink now, unlike in our law student days!) It's still not exactly uncommon for us to encounter restaurants with a few $35+ entrees on the menu (though usually, there are also some more modestly priced ones available), though it's often through events for work. Because the price is rather "out there" for people from most other places, however, I think some reviewers find Mama's Fish House to be a polarizing or disappointing experience that's not worth the price. 

The "Black Pearl", a passionfruit chocolate mousse served in a cookie shell.

We enjoyed every dish we tried at Mama's Fish House. The seafood was all very fresh and the fish entrees we had were all well-cooked. The ambience of the place was also lovely. They are located right on a small beach, and the decor is nice and suits the setting well. We thought it felt like a special experience for a Mother's Day dinner, and we'd probably consider going to the restaurant again if there was a future trip to Maui.

As for the Maui Chef's Table, because it's both an interactive experience (the chef and their team are preparing the dishes in an open kitchen right in front of the seating area) as well as a multiple-course tasting menu, it's $150/person. We had seven courses, including dessert and a smaller, more amuse bouche-sized course in the beginning. I should also note that the portions (particularly for the "entree" course pictured below, which was a sous-vide strip loin) were generally quite a bit more generous than I'd expect from a tasting menu of similar price in NYC. We were actually a bit overly full by the time we finished the "entree" course, and had very little room for dessert. 

The "entree" course, a strip loin that was cooked sous-vide and then seared (I think?), they also seasoned it with a dry rub that was really special, I can't remember what was in it, but it was unique, I hadn't had anything like it before. Towards the right of the plate is a piece of heavily-spiced grilled pineapple.

Living in NYC, one definitely gets a bit spoiled by being close to so many excellent restaurants helmed by famous chefs. I suppose I could say that it's difficult to impress me, in part because I've gone through the biglaw summer recruiting season in the past (a major part of it is "summer lunches" reimbursed by the firm out of their substantial recruiting budget), which came with the opportunity to try places like Jean Georges, Bouley, and Le Bernadin.

Maui Chef's Table was an experience that stood out, in a good way, from other meals I've had at fine dining restaurants. There's something really special about the experience of going to a nice setting, in a beautiful place far from home, and letting the chef take the lead and exercise their creativity, with heavy focus on local ingredients. That's not an experience one could easily get in NYC.

Not every single combination of flavors that was part of our Maui Chef's Table dinner worked as well as some of the others: The scallops pictured at the start of this post came with a lemon and ginger relish that was shockingly good (it's not something that sounds that good to me on paper, but it was great!) and "potato silk" with something savory I couldn't identify, but made for the best mashed potatoes I'd ever had. That scallop dish may be one of the top dishes I've ever had in my life! The beef pictured above was also really awesome and special. There was also a pasta course and a soup course that were both delicious, but were a little less unique in comparison to the scallops and beef. Dessert was a black sesame, dark chocolate, and orange cake that was interesting, but a little too heavy when I was already so full. Earlier in the meal, there was a grilled cauliflower and farro dish I ultimately didn't like because the farro was too dry.

But even with the dishes that stood out less, the experience of enjoying the chef's vision, and of trying out the combinations of ingredients that inspired them when planning out this menu, still felt really special. If I had to guess, the only potentially comparable NYC-based-ish restaurant is probably Blue Hill Stone Barns, which isn't technically located within the city. (K and I have been to the Blue Hill in the West Village, which was delightful, and I can only imagine that the experience is even better when one goes to the actual farm where they're growing and raising all those wonderful ingredients.) So yes, I would totally also do Maui Chef's Table again if there was a future trip! 

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