the plantation house restaurant in kapalua: gracious ambiance paired with exceptional cuisine

It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it was—the kind of evening when you want to enjoy a satisfying meal while being warmed by a cozy fire. Fortunately, Janet and I are dining at one of only two restaurants on Maui that have a fireplace: The Plantation House in Kapalua.

With raindrops pelting Janet’s car, we’re grateful for the restaurant’s porte cochere so we won’t get drenched. Janet relinquishes her keys to the valet and we enter the large plantation-style building which, with its myriad white-cased windows, is reminiscent of days gone by. Indeed, as we stroll along the lengthy corridor leading to the restaurant itself, we feel as though we’re journeying back in time to the heyday of Maui’s plantation era.

We’re greeted warmly by Dining Room Manager Nate Mau, who shows us to a table for two next to a bank of open windows. Hopefully, the rain squalls will subside so we can watch the sun set—this is obviously the place in Kapalua for sunset dining. The most extraordinary thing occurs next: noticing we’re both dressed in black, Nate disappears momentarily only to return with black napkins. Now that’s what I call attention to detail!

Server Vicki comes by to acquaint us with the evening’s selection of fresh fish: uku (gray snapper), ahi, and papio (a firm-fleshed member of the amberjack family). She also tells us about the six different fresh fish preparations—some have a Mediterranean flair like “A Taste of Venice,” which incorporates orzo and golden raisins; some are named for local ingredients like “Taste of Makawao,” which features a Makawao basil pesto crust.

Meanwhile, Nate has brought us an aperitif—2007 Marques de Gelida Cava Brut Reserva from Spain, which “pairs especially well with island cuisine,” he says. “Everyone thinks I’m the just guy who drinks all the wine, but I actually help with their selection. This [the cava] is one of my favorites, so it had to go on the list.” The cava is clean, crisp, and fruity, with pleasant hints of citrus. Excellent choice, Nate!

Janet and I kick back and enjoy our surroundings, which are elegant, yet casual—high ceilings, teak tables, hand-carved chairs with pineapple motif, muted color palette, relaxing island-style music playing in the background and, of course, the comforting double-sided fireplace. From its perch on a hill above the Plantation Golf Course, the restaurant boasts impressive panoramic ocean and neighbor island views. Even on a blustery evening such as this one, there are things to look at—like a Princess cruise ship on the horizon taking on a ghostly appearance as it glides in and out of clouds.

The Plantation House’s menu reflects Executive Chef Alex Stanislaw’s Mediterranean heritage. Flavors from France and Italy are incorporated with fresh local produce, herbs, and seafood. For starters, we’ve selected the sashimi Mediterranean style ($17) with infused lemon oil, Hawaiian sea salt, and baby arugula. Vicki tells us it’s big-eye, Grade A ahi, and we find it incredibly light and creamy; the sea salt lingers pleasantly on the palate. In addition, we try the sweet and spicy Hawaiian-style prawns ($16). The shrimp are plump, the toffee-colored velvety sauce is infused with dots of fresh herbs and cracked black and red pepper, and there’s just the right amount of heat. Hawaiian-style cole slaw tossed with rice wine vinegar adds a complementary crunch factor. We’re quite impressed when Vicki tells us there are 17 different ingredients in the sauce, and agree we wouldn’t want a single one left out. In fact, I can’t leave that sauce alone—luckily, warm bread buns have magically appeared so I can mop up every last speck!

Chef Stanislaw stops by to make sure we’re enjoying our meal so far. Tall and lanky with a shock of hair that’s held in place with his trademark headband (tonight it’s hot pink!), he’s a man who obviously loves what he does. “It’s so satisfying when you create a dish that people enjoy,” he says. And he takes particular delight in working with seafood. “Here it’s fish, fish, and more fish,” he enthuses. “I’ve had the same purveyors forever, and they take good care of me.”

Vicki brings our organically farmed beet salad ($12) and soup of the day, which tonight is carrot-ginger ($9). Vicki pours the soup from a small ceramic pitcher over the toasted pineapple and ginger garnish already in the bowl. The soup’s lovely tawny color is particularly appealing, and the flavor and texture definitely don’t disappoint. The beet salad is composed of tender chunks of golden roasted beets, flavorful red Kapalua heirloom tomatoes, and tangy lemon goat cheese, finished with basil-balsamic. It’s the Greek version of a caprese salad, Vicki tells us.

While the Plantation House’s award-winning complete wine list (Wine Spectator Magazine’s Award of Excellence for several years running) contains some 200 wines by the glass, plus half and full bottles, they’ve made it easy by listing wine recommendations within the different sections of the menu. Fantastico! How can you go wrong?

Because Vicki wants us to try several different fish preparations, she’s asked Chef Stanislaw to prepare us a special “sampler” of four of the six choices. My favorite is “A Taste of Venice” ($36)—panko pressed uku on shrimp, asparagus, sugar peas, and orzo, finished with golden raisins and toasted pine nut gremolata. Janet favors “A Taste of Maui” ($35)—pistachio crusted uku on Maui onions, Kula tomatoes, and Upcountry spinach, with Mediterranean couscous and virgin olive oil.

Diners craving something other than fish can choose from filet mignon ($46), New York strip steak ($38), free-range chicken breast ($27), lamb shank ($35), and Diane’s Pasta ($27—$32 with shrimp). Side orders include truffle fries ($7) and Upcountry spinach sauté ($7).

For dessert, we’ve moved to the bar area where a huge mural depicting Maui’s plantation days graces an entire wall (A. Johnson, circa 1991). Popular desserts include cherry chocolate bread pudding ($9), chocolate duo (flourless chocolate torte and pot de creme au chocolate—$12), and Kapalua key lime pie ($9). After careful consideration, Janet and I decide on the key lime pie. Its graham cracker crust melts in the mouth, and the silky filling is pleasantly tangy. A whipped cream topping provides the perfect counterbalance. Janet declares it to be “a really great version of a classic recipe.” I’m unable to comment, as I’m busy savoring the pie’s lusciousness.

After-dinner drinks include coffees, cappuccino and espresso, French press, dessert wines, vintage ports, cognacs, brandys, and cordials. There’s also a tea chest containing nine different varieties of Mighty Leaf teas.

Janet and I are reluctant to leave the warm, welcoming ambiance of The Plantation House. We’ve felt like honored guests among new friends. It’s easy to see why this restaurant has earned a reputation among Maui’s best for serving innovative cuisine with grace and style.

–heidi pool

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