ko at the fairmont kea lani: celebrating maui’s sugarcane heritage

Fans (and soon-to-be fans) of Ko Restaurant at The Fairmont Kea Lani are in for a delightful surprise: after a multi-million-dollar renovation, the new and improved Ko is positively stunning. Nestled alongside the adult pool, away from the hustle and bustle of the Kea Lani’s lobby, Ko is both intimate and romantic. And the island-themed decor is simply breathtaking.

Ko means “sugarcane” in Hawaiian, and Executive Chef Tylun Pang drew inspiration for his menu from Maui’s plantation era—authentic family recipes passed down for generations, all elevated to modern day with the use of fresh island produce, seafood, and meat. Diners will find traditional favorites from cultures that merged during the plantation days: Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. Ko’s plantation-inspired cuisine runs the gamut from Portuguese bean soup, to Korean style spicy chicken, to lumpia Filipino spring rolls.

I’m dining this evening with Megan Haertling, director of public relations for the Kea Lani. Megan’s enthusiasm for all things Ko is infectious. “We’re all so proud of Ko,” she says. “It’s true to Maui’s heritage and cherished family recipes. There’s no other fine dining establishment like it on the island.”

After we’re seated in remarkably comfy chairs, Megan explains the concept behind Ko’s new interior, which was created by Island Design Center in Wailuku. (They’re the masterminds behind some of Maui’s other memorable dining venues such as Japengo at the Hyatt Regency, and Ferraro’s at the Four Seasons.) “Every design element has a meaning,” Megan says: the white roof, supported without exterior beams making it appear to float, represents a cloud hovering over a sugarcane field in central Maui; thousands of stainless steel beads hanging from the roof are reminiscent of the sun cascading through Maui’s misty rain; strong, geometric lines mimic the repetitive rows found in cane fields; and woven chair backs bring to mind the chaos of cane leaves.

To start our dining experience off on the right foot, we order cocktails. On Megan’s suggestion, I select the pomegranate cucumber mojito ($15), made with Bacardi light rum, freshly squeezed lime juice, pomegranate, club soda, hand pressed English cucumber, and fresh organic mint. It’s pleasingly pink in color, and an enjoyable blend of sweet and tart. The cocktail menu also contains some cleverly named concoctions like the 3 Nenes (Grey Goose L’Orange, Le Citron and La Poire vodka, cranberry juice, and a splash of sweet and sour—$14), and the Paniolo Rider (Remy VSOP cognac, fresh lime juice, and ginger charged with soda—$15).

Server Drew, who is also very passionate about Ko, presents me with an electronic wine list on an iPad. Holy corkscrew…this is totally cool! I can’t stop playing with it! But I do reluctantly tear myself away to confer with Megan on which starters to order. We settle on oishi sushi ($19), which translates literally as “good sushi,” and American kobe beef poke ($26). We’ve decided to share everything in the spirit of the plate lunch, which has its origin in the plantation days. The poke is served like stew in a little pot. The beef is seared with Hawaiian steak rub, and mixed with cucumber, tomato, and Maui onion. Its creaminess works well with the crunchiness of the vegetables. The sushi roll is prepared with spicy tuna, tempura battered, and served crisp, resulting in an elegant symphony of textures. Silver-toned chopsticks are a classy touch, mirroring the stainless steel bead strands.

Ko’s starter menu also contains “Ohana Style Pupus”—trios of items that marry especially well ($40 each): kobe beef poke, crispy calamari, and chicken and mushroom lumpia; or oishi sushi, stir fried peppered shrimp, and pork and shrimp lumpia.

As dusk settles in, Ko takes on a glow from odorless torches and acrylic sconces intended to symbolize sugarcane smoke rising into the Maui sky at harvest. Sugarcane planted around the south side of the restaurant sways gracefully in the light breeze. At the circular Brazilian granite bar, a lighted backsplash composed of columns of recycled glass nicely complements the green and brown striped upholstery. And speaking of the bar, Ko’s daily Happy Hour offers 50% off house cocktails, and select beers and wines by the glass, between 3 and 5 p.m.

For our next course, Megan and I have chosen the Chop Chop sesame salad ($13): crisp lettuce, won bok cabbage, shredded chicken breast, carrots, cilantro, won ton chips, and sesame dressing. Crisp and refreshing, it’s a perfect palate cleanser before we dive into our entrees.

Ko offers five different fresh fish preparations (all market price). Drew tells us the offerings tonight are onaga and walu. Megan’s favorite preparation is the steamed ti-leaf wrap with ginger scallion pesto, so we select this method for the onaga, and also order the lavender honey macadamia nut shrimp ($38). The onaga is succulent and beautifully presented alongside Moloka‘i sweet potatoes, asparagus, baby carrots, bean sprouts, and baby bok choy. The ample portion of seasoned shrimp is enhanced by a Kula Ali‘i Lavender honey sauce with just the right level of sweetness, candied macadamia nuts, all accompanied by steamed white rice. And, because I’m a soba noodle fanatic, we’re trying the spicy buckwheat soba noodle stir fry ($27): wok stir fried Hamakua ali‘i mushrooms, edamame, sugar peas, and baby bok choy. It’s mildly spicy with a rich, deeply satisfying flavor.

Chef Tylun Pang is a tall, teddy bear of a guy with a broad, welcoming smile, and a humble manner. He’s the kind of person you’d like to spend time with in the kitchen. “At Ko we’re honoring our forefathers,” he tells me. “It’s all about keeping our local traditions alive. And working with these cherished family recipes is also a lot of fun.” Chef Pang devotes some of his free time to serving on the Board of Directors of the Maui Culinary Academy, which is also the recipient of the proceeds from his popular cookbook “What Maui Likes to Eat.”

Ko scored big time recently at the ‘Aipono Awards, sponsored by Maui No Ka Oi magazine. The awards honor excellence in Maui dining, and winners are determined by a readers’ poll. Ko took the gold for “Best Menu for a Small Planet,” earned a silver award for “Best Epicurean Twist on a Local Favorite,” and tied for silver in the “Best Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine” category. In addition, Chef Pang was presented with the coveted 2012 “Friend of Ag” award by Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, which recognizes Pang as a chef who goes above and beyond to support local agriculture.

Ko is also family friendly, with a keiki menu that includes sandwiches, pastas, and entrees such as chicken tenders, fish and chips, and a personal fish-shaped pizza ($8 each). Kids ages five and under eat for free!

With our delectable evening coming to an end, Megan and I share one of Ko’s signature desserts, a luscious, decadent threesome of plantation pineapple cake, Kula strawberry gelato, and ginger cheesecake ($15). They say good things always come in threes, right?

Ko is an ‘Aipono Award winner, and it’s also become a winner in my book. Drew had told us earlier that Chef Pang “cooks from his heart.” It’s obvious this chef also cooks with tremendous soul. Kudos, Chef Pang!

— heidi pool

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