monkeypod kitchen … there’s no monkey business at this hot new wailea eatery

With a name like “Monkeypod Kitchen” it has to be fun, and with Chef Peter Merriman at the helm, you know it’s gonna be good. This stylish new Wailea restaurant is both, and more.

Perched high above the ocean on the top floor at the Wailea Gateway Center, Monkeypod has two outdoor dining terraces with views of neighboring Kaho‘olawe, Molokini, and Lana‘i. My foodie friend Randall and I opt for indoor seating so we can keep an eye on the action in the kitchen as well as the dining room and bar area.Monkeypod Kitchen - interior

Monkeypod has a distinct “uptown” feel, as opposed to the more laid back tropical atmosphere found at most Wailea resort restaurants. Servers looking snappy in black uniforms embroidered with the restaurant’s logo, as well as the vibrant fabrics utilized in the family-friendly booths and on the chair cushions, contribute to the welcoming ambiance.

Chef Merriman’s mission is to serve the finest handcrafted food utilizing high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients. In fact, our server Alison tells us that only the potatoes are imported. Everything else is either procured from local farmers or made in house. Impressive!

Monkeypod’s menu is divided into three cleverly-titled sections: “let’s start” contains handcrafted culinary cocktails and appetizers; “let’s eat” covers salads, pizzas, burgers, entrees, and sides; and “let’s stay for awhile” lists the dessert offerings. The keiki menu (“for the crafty young ones”), features items with witty names, all reasonably priced at $5.95, like Curious George Fish & Chips, King Kong Burgers, and Monkey Business Saimin. (Okay, so I fibbed about the no monkey business part, and I’m hoping you’ll forgive me.)

Randall and I begin with some libations: he chooses a glass of Maui Brewing Co.’s Amber Reign beer (on tap—$6 ), and I go for the Pod Thai cocktail ($11), made with 10 cane rum, crème of coconut, lime, lemongrass-cardamom syrup, and Thai basil, which is served in a large tiki glass that requires both hands to lift. This robust cocktail is definitely not for the faint of heart—it goes right to my head.

For appetizers we follow Alison’s advice and order the Crispy Rock Shrimp & Calamari ($11.95) and the Pumpkin Patch Ravioli ($10.95). The first dish is served with shaved Maui onions that resemble deep-fried shoestrings, and pineapple jalapeno vinaigrette. I’m usually a bit squeamish about calamari, but Randall says it’s the best he’s ever tasted, and convinces me to try it. Much to my surprise, I love it! I’m a calamari convert. Both the rock shrimp and the calamari are tender and the batter is light, not greasy. The vinaigrette is well balanced—the jalapeno doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. Alison says that’s because it’s miso based.

Not only is the ravioli appetizer plate a beautiful thing to behold, it’s also a divine culinary offering. Plump pasta pillows are stuffed with kiawe-roasted squash puree, and served with island chevre (goat cheese) and sage brown butter with a fresh spinach garnish. The slightly firm pasta holds up well to the richness of the other ingredients. Randall and I think this dish totally rocks the house.

Other appetizers on the menu include Wood-Roasted Chicken Wings ($10.95), Handcrafted Blue Crab Cakes ($18.95), and Poke Tacos ($15.95).

Monkeypod Kitchen is the latest venture for Chef Merriman, who is recognized as one of the founders of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine. His other Maui restaurants are Merriman’s Kapalua and Hula Grill on Ka‘anapali Beach. “Why use fruits and vegetables grown thousands of miles away, picked when green, ripened artificially, and then shipped halfway across the world?” he asks. “Why not work with local farmers to attain the freshest, highest quality ingredients possible, which not only makes food taste better, but also promotes the success of the local community?” Why not, indeed!

There are six salads on the menu ranging from Classic Caesar ($6.95) to Handcrafted Ricotta Caprese ($11.95), which Alison tells us contains house made ricotta. Since he’s a beet fanatic, Randall opts for the Kapalua Farms Roasted Beet and Maui Onion ($11.95), while I select the Organic Shaved Fennel and Cashew ($9.95). Randall’s salad is definitely a home run. Besides the beets and onions, it contains crispy bacon (isn’t everything better with bacon?), local Surfing Goat Dairy cheese, and orange pepper dressing. My fennel and cashew salad is a refreshingly crisp mixture with Maui onions, ‘Ono Farms chicory, mandolin-sliced apple chips, and cider vinaigrette. It’s served with a slice of focaccia bread. The greens in both salads are exceptionally fresh and flavorful. I try another cocktail, this time the Rain Tree Elixir ($11), with veev acai spirit, coconut juice, lime, simple syrup, and kaffir lime leaves. It looks like a garden in a glass, and tastes like a winner.

Over Randall’s shoulder I can see the pizza chef hand tossing his dough. Monkeypod has five wood-fired pizzas on the menu, and they come with this disclaimer: “Our hand tossed pizzas are made to order, so they can sometimes take a little longer than our entrees…trust us, they are worth the wait!” Pizza offerings include the Maui Gold ($12.95) with tomato sauce, sweet pineapple, and kalua pork; and the Roasted Butternut Squash (also $12.95) with white sauce, caramelized onions, rosemary, and pine nuts.

After consulting with Alison once again, Randall chooses for his entrée Chef Merriman’s Classic Wok Charred Ahi ($28.95). I’m in the mood for meat, so I go for the Peppercorn Rubbed Maui Cattle Natural Beef Filet Steak ($29.95). Other tempting entrees include Organic Macadamia Nut Crusted Fish of the Day ($29.95) and the Fresh Gnocchi ($18.95). Alison tells us that the gnocchi is made fresh every morning.

Randall’s ahi is sliced into perfect squares with ruby red centers. It’s served with shoyu and mirin sauce on a bed of raw cabbage with stir-fried rice on the side. The rice is a tasty concoction nicely spiced with ginger; a touch of sambal chili paste gives it a bit of a kick. My steak is cooked to a perfect medium rare, and is slathered in a Kona coffee honey butter and topped with spicy paniolo onions that I don’t find too spicy at all. On the side are plump wood-roasted garlic rosemary fingerling potatoes, making this a satisfying meat-and-potatoes dish.

Monkeypod offers several side dishes, all priced at $4.95, including Organic Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Peppers and Onions and Garlic Truffle Oil Fries. In addition to an extensive beer menu, both on tap and bottled, the wine list contains nearly 60 selections, about half of which are available by the glass. Per glass prices range from $6 to $18, and bottle prices range from $30 to $210. Vintners that employ sustainable, organic, or biodynamic viticultural practices are notated with a special symbol.
By now, the restaurant has gotten pretty busy and there is live music over in the corner next to the bar, but the noise level is kept down by the numerous exposed wood beams in the ceiling which nicely absorb sound. Owing to the fact that Monkeypod is a good value for families staying in Wailea, we note a considerable number of such groups.

The dessert offerings are simple—primarily cream pies: chocolate, banana cream, coconut, and Kula strawberry (all $5.95 a slice). Randall and I share a slice of banana cream. The crust has just the right flakiness, and the filling is a satiny delight and not too sweet. It’ll remind you of your grandma’s pies!

Monkeypod Kitchen is open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:30am to 10:30pm. Happy Hour is from 3 to 5pm every day. Although walk-ins are welcome, you can make reservations by calling 891-2322 or online at http://www.monkeypodkitchen.com.

— by heidi pool

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