honu seafood & pizza…another rousing success for chef mark ellman

Don’t let the unassuming façade fool you. Once inside Honu Seafood & Pizza, located smack dab at water’s edge on Front Street in Lahaina, you’ll know this brand-new, sophisticated seafood shack is destined to be yet another success story for renowned chef Mark Ellman.

You can’t dine any closer to the ocean without being on a boat. This restaurant abuts the sea wall, and from every table plus the bar area you’re treated to softly-breaking waves, anchored vessels bobbing with the current, and killer views of the islands of Lana‘i and Moloka‘i—at sunset, a flaming red ball sinks dramatically into the ocean between them.

And then there’s the food: shrimp, oysters, crab, mussels, and lobster; chowders and salads; brick oven pizzas; and several vegetarian options. There’s even Joe’s Special—scrambled eggs, ground beef, spinach, and mushrooms—an homage to the famous dish created in the 1920s at Original Joe’s in San Francisco.

My friend, Christine, has been working long hours lately, so a girls’ night out is just the ticket for her. We’re seated at a table for two, and are greeted by server Trinity, who really knows her menu. She encourages us to try one of the many handcrafted cocktails ($12 each), and helps us select the Cucumber Breeze (Hawaiian vodka, Stirrings ginger liqueur, fresh lime sour, and cucumber wheels) and the Guava Kaffir Rita (Sauza blue tequila silver, Orchid guava liqueur, fresh lime sour, and kaffir lime leaves).

Meanwhile, Chef Ellman himself stops by to greet us. One of the twelve originators of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, he has a long history of producing distinctive food on Maui. Having sold his Maui Tacos chain and Penne Pasta Café in 2008 to concentrate on Mala Ocean Tavern (right next door to Honu) and Mala Wailea (at the Wailea Beach Marriott), Chef Ellman is not one to sit on his laurels. “I don’t like just sitting at home watching TV,” he says. He also keeps it all in the family: his wife, Judy, designed Honu’s interior, and the restaurant’s managers are none other than daughters Ariana and Michelle.

Chef Ellman tells us he retained the services of mixologist Chandra Lam from Honolulu to create specialty cocktails based on Honu’s menu. The Guava Kaffir Rita is a curiously wonderful concoction with a nice blend of sweet and sour. Christine’s eyes widen as she tastes the Cucumber Breeze. “This is the freshest flavor I’ve ever had in a cocktail,” she declares. “It’s refreshing like lemonade on a hot day, and there’s a pleasant aftertaste that reminds me of honeydew melon.”

For appetizers, we’ve selected the Maine Bay Shrimp Cocktail ($9) and the Lamb Riblets ($11). We were also tempted by the Live Clam Chowder with potatoes and bacon ($14), and the Grilled Octopus with olive oil, garlic, and hummus ($14), but we’ll have to save those for another visit. The shrimp cocktail is an ample portion of little pink cuties, topped with cocktail sauce that has just the right amount of heat, and a touch of guacamole. So far so good! The lamb riblets are so tender the meat falls right off the bone, and their flavor is nicely enhanced by a tangy Greek yogurt sauce.

While waiting for our salads, we peruse the beer and wine lists. There are 12 draft beers to choose from, ranging in price from $6 to $11, and an immense selection of bottled beers from all over the world: Europe, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines, as well as some nice domestic choices. Prices range from $6 to $9 per bottle. The eclectic wine list has an impressive selection of foreign and domestic reds and whites. It’s obvious the list was purposefully conceived.

When our salads are served, they exude freshness. My pohole fern salad with hearts of palm, Olowalu tomatoes, and “minus 8” vinaigrette ($9) is a colorful presentation sprinkled with lovely edible orange nasturtium petals. The tomatoes are sweet, juicy, and sliced super thin, and the pohole fern spears are like asparagus only nuttier. Christine’s kale salad with dates, pomegranates, toasted walnuts, lemon vinaigrette, and wide shavings of pecorino Romano ($9) is a texturally complex knockout. “It’s a curious blend of flavors that really works,” she says. “Every bite is different, the lemon really pops, and the dates totally rock this dish.” When I taste it I notice the kale is finely chopped, making it easy to eat. For my next visit to Honu, I make a mental note to try the Dungeness Crab Louis Salad ($26) with butter lettuce, egg, and tomatoes. I’ll bet it’s amazing.

Chef Ellman stops by again and we ask him about the “minus 8” vinaigrette. “It comes from an ice wine that’s made in Canada at a temperature of minus eight degrees Fahrenheit,” he says. Wow…talk about a specialty ingredient. Commenting on the kale salad, he says: “It’s our vow to the superfood movement. Kale, pomegranate, and dates are considered power foods.” Power to the kale!

Judy Ellman did an impressive job with Honu’s interior. It’s light, breezy, and stylishly understated—a perfect foreground for the sublime ocean view. The comfortable chairs inside are a neutral beige, while the chairs on the lanai are a deep blue that mirrors the sea. Ceiling fans keep the air moving, essential in toasty Lahaina. And I don’t often comment on restrooms but, ladies, this is one not to be missed.

Chef Ellman notices us studying the surface of our table and explains it’s custom made with kirei boards manufactured from reclaimed and compressed bamboo-like sorghum stalks, an environmentally friendly substitute for wood. The result is a surface with beautiful color and texture that resembles grass cloth.

Christine and I notice a couple of sizeable brick oven pizzas ($14-16) being served at nearby tables, along with a whole Wok Fried Dungeness Crab ($59) that has a luscious red hue. When our own entrées are served, we’re more than ready to dig in. Christine has selected the Crab Mac and Cheese ($21). It’s ooey, gooey, and oh so gourmet with huge chunks of crab, melted cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, and thyme sprig garnish. My New Zealand Salmon, served lifeguard style with pohole tomato salsa on top ($36), is a perfectly cooked, generous portion of succulent sautéed salmon sitting on a profusion of mascarpone grits that are absolutely to die for—creamy and yummy.

Since we’re due at a show shortly, Christine and I will have to save dessert for our next dining experience at Honu which, we decide, will be very soon. Trinity tells us pastry chef Elizabeth McDonald makes her creations with natural stevia instead of sugar. Most popular are the Coconut Cream Napoleon ($9), with a hint of local cinnamon, served with house made caramel and chocolate sauces; and the Turtle Cheesecake (also $9), a macadamia nut caramel cheesecake with a silky ganache topping.

As we reluctantly depart for our next event, we notice it’s a full house tonight. As I said earlier, I think we can chalk up another successful venture for Chef Ellman and family.

–heidi pool

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