the ma‘alaea waterfront restaurant: version 2.0

Waterfront_TablesideCaesarIn mid-2011, the Smith Family, owners of the venerable Ma‘alaea Waterfront Restaurant, announced they were closing temporarily for renovations. As the months passed, most of us feared this beloved eating establishment was gone for good. Then, in the spring of 2012, there was much rejoicing throughout the land of Maui: The Waterfront would indeed reopen, but in an entirely new location—at the Harbor Shops, in the spot formerly occupied by the Ma‘alaea Grill. Hooray! But would there still be tableside Caesar salad on the menu?

Eager to know the answer, my gal pal Janet and I recently went to check things out. The Waterfront used to be tucked away inside an obscure condo complex with extremely limited parking. The decor was rather outdated, with red, semi-circular booths that some found romantic (I’m afraid they didn’t quite do it for me). The new and improved Waterfront has a totally different vibe—casually elegant comes to mind—with comfortable seating overlooking the bobbing boats at Ma‘alaea Harbor and, to the left, the verdant slopes of Haleakala. Blazing tiki torches outside and mellow island-style music playing in the background set the scene for a memorable Maui dining experience.

We’re greeted by none other than “Mr. Waterfront” himself, Gary Smith, who shows us to our table. We’ll be taken care of this evening by server Scott who, along with 80 percent of the former staff, has returned. Even Executive Chef Bob Cambra is back. Scott explains the menu has essentially remained unchanged; they’ve kept the favorites (like the tableside Caesar—yes!) and the six different fresh fish preparations, and added some new items they hope will become new favorites. “The kitchen in this location is much bigger, so we have room to prepare more dishes,” Scott says of the expanded menu.

Scott brings freshly baked focaccia bread with mango honey butter for us to enjoy while we sip our cocktails. Janet has ordered the Apple Martini ($8.50)—smooth and not too sweet, with a hint of green apple that lingers pleasantly on the palate. I’m a sucker for a good Lemon Drop martini ($9), and this one is top notch.

For appetizers, we’ve selected the Jidori Chicken Summer Rolls ($12) and the Pan Fried Oysters ($14). The summer rolls are beautifully presented on an oblong plate, composed of Ha‘iku organic greens, sweet red peppers, carrots, clover sprouts, and fresh mint with cucumber cilantro vinaigrette. They’re fresh and crunchy, and the clover sprouts are reminiscent of alfalfa sprouts (in a good way). The oysters are also nicely presented in a five-point star pattern. They’re Washington State oysters, flour dusted, and enhanced with Vietnamese sambal and Chinese parsley remoulade, a lovely ocean salad that’s not cloyingly sweet like most, and orange tobiko. We’re off to a great start!

The Waterfront’s extensive wine list reads like a literary jewel and is highly entertaining, such as this description of the 2007 Mount Eden chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains: “Reticent in fruit yet buoyant in personality, this chardonnay has penetrating, compelling aromas unique to Mount Eden of earth, quince, and lime zest. On the palate, the first impression is of solid acidity with the fruit in the background but abundant richness, texture, and minerality in the foreground. Overall, an exquisite, teasing tautness completes the picture.”

Our hearts skip a beat when we see Scott wheeling the Caesar salad cart towards our table ($12 per person). The Waterfront continues its tradition of being the only restaurant on Maui offering this popular delicacy. Waipoli baby romaine and crisp romaine hearts sit in an enormous koa salad bowl, waiting patiently to be dressed. As Scott prepares the dressing, he discusses each ingredient: virgin olive oil, coddled raw egg (Scott says it’s pasteurized and brought up to just the right temperature to eliminate bacteria), crushed garlic, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, fresh lemon juice, and grated parmesan cheese. Scott tosses our salad “with aloha” and serves it on chilled salad plates to ensure no wilting while we devour it. The greens are flavorful and the dressing well balanced; homemade herbed croutons are petite, soft, creamy, and mild—the perfect complement to this classic culinary delight.

We smell her before we see her: the “lei lady” from Paradise Flower Farm strolling from table to table offering perfumed circles of tropical beauty for the ladies in the house ($12 each; two for $20). Guests at a neighboring table select tuberose, and the fragrance wafts pleasantly our way.

Scott has previously presented the evening’s fresh fish selection—mahimahi, monchong, ono, and lehi. The Waterfront invites you to “become your own chef” by selecting a fish and pairing it with any of their six methods: “island style,” baked with crabmeat stuffing, a la meuniere, en bastille, Sicilian style, or a “healthy choice” preparation that’s broiled or poached and served atop greens and vegetables.

Janet has selected the monchong “island style” ($37). It’s been broiled (you have a choice of sautéed, broiled, poached, or baked) and paired with Moloka‘i shrimp, jasmine rice, won bok cabbage, carrots, shitake mushrooms, and sugar snap peas, and finished with lemongrass, ginger, and coconut cream. It’s a delicate and delectable masterpiece. My choice—the lehi prepared en bastille ($37)—is also to die for. A generous filet is imprisoned in ribbons of fresh angel hair potato (creative and delicious!), sautéed, and topped with fresh scallions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and lemon buerre blanc. Tasty sautéed asparagus spears sit alongside.

Other tempting entrées on the menu include New Zealand Lamp Chops (6 bone, $35)— roasted free range double cut lamb chops with garlic and black pepper rub; Rotisserie Chinese Chicken ($25)—marinated organic free range chicken prepared with a Chinese dry rub; Filet Diane ($35)—pan seared all-natural Angus beef tenderloin with mustard, cognac, and cream sauce; and Venison Christian ($37)—farm raised, seared New Zealand red deer medallions with Woop Woop Shiraz infused demi-glace.

The Waterfront’s new location has enabled the Smith Family to increase from 72 to 150 seats, and the kitchen is four times larger than the previous one, making it possible for them to offer lunch service. “We couldn’t have done lunch in the old location because there wasn’t enough room to prep for dinner while serving lunch,” Scott explains. Their lunch menu contains a nice variety of salads (choice of small/large—$6/$10 to $9/$15), sandwiches (served with one side—$12 to $14), fresh fish entrées ($19), burgers ($14), and a daily plate lunch special for $11.

But now back to our dinner. All desserts offered at The Waterfront are created and baked on the premises. Because she’s the dessert person, I always let Janet pick. She goes for the gusto: upside-down apple pie ($9) in a macadamia nut praline crust, served warm a la mode. They’re not kidding—it’s really served upside down! The pie is nicely spiced with plenty of cinnamon, not too sweet for my taste, and the aroma is positively heavenly.

A best-seller on the dessert menu requires some advance planning: the Haleakala Molten Chocolate Cake ($10) takes 20 minutes to prepare. But it’s a killer—served with kiawe grilled Maui Gold pineapple and Old Lahaina dark rum caramel sauce. Wow. Next time we’ll definitely save room.

The Smith Family has taken its winning restaurant formula to a phenomenal new location, where they’re certain to continue their long history of excellence.

–heidi pool

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