i‘o restaurant in lahaina: farm to table at its finest

Io_restaurant_MauiIt’s hard to imagine a finer example of the farm-to-table concept on Maui than I‘o Restaurant in Lahaina. Executive Chef James McDonald and his partners not only own and operate the restaurant, they also own the eight-acre O‘o Farm in Kula, which supplies produce and coffee for I‘o, as well as their other ventures: Pacific‘O Restaurant, The Feast at Lele, and ‘Aina Gourmet Market at Honua Kai Resort & Spa. Talk about vertical integration!

I‘o Restaurant is tucked away into an oceanfront corner at 505 Front Street in Lahaina, directly across from sister restaurant Pacific‘O, and adjacent to The Feast at Lele. Signage displays a playful twist on the letters “i” and “o,” indicating there’s more fun to come. Susan is joining me this evening, and we’re greeted at the sleek stainless steel hostess station by I‘o General Manager Lyndsey Miller, who shows us to an inside table next to enormous white wood window casements that fold back to reveal a shimmering ocean, with the neighboring island of Lana‘i in the backdrop. Al fresco dining on the brick patio is also available.

The interior of I‘o is reminiscent of a gracious southern plantation infused with a nautical theme. Generous use of wood, accented with various metals, make for a welcoming ambiance. I’m rather particular about restaurant chairs, and those at I‘o are so comfortable you could happily sit in them for hours (like the two hours required for their six-course tasting menu—more on that later).

Server Melissa comes by to explain the menu, and she really knows her stuff. At I‘o, you can order traditional entrees with predetermined side dishes (complete plates), or you can “mix and match” from an extensive list of chilled greens, hot greens, risottos, and proteins—perfect for guests with special dietary needs. Finally, there’s the six-course tasting menu I mentioned before (called “The Best of I‘o—$112 per person with the suggested wine pairings, or $82 without), offering what they refer to as “intimate portions of our favorites.”

Melissa tells us the evening’s fresh fish selections are monchong and shutome (broadbill swordfish), and that a 200-pound ‘ahi was also brought in earlier today. In a nod to the colossal ‘ahi, Melissa says the chefs have created a special appetizer for the evening: kim chee pineapple ‘ahi poke—$12. She’s given us a lot to ponder!

In the meantime, we’ve ordered a specialty cocktail to start our evening out right: the Honey ‘N’ Sage (Bombay Sapphire, honey, fresh sage, and lemon—$12). It’s similar to a lemon drop martini, and it’s obvious this concoction was well thought out. The sage gives it a subtle savory note, and you can taste each individual ingredient.

Melissa brings us fresh oven-baked bread along with an artichoke-asiago dipping sauce. “Be careful,” she says. “It’s positively addictive.” She was right. Susan and I throw our diets out the window for the evening, and make a pact we’ll atone for our sins tomorrow.

Although the special poke appetizer sounded wonderful, the crispy ahi ($16) caught our eye (this way we’ll still get to sample the big guy). The presentation of this dish is absolutely gorgeous: triangular-shaped black plate showcasing four huge squares of gleaming ‘ahi that have been crusted with nori, wasabi, and panko. It’s served atop a bed of green papaya salad, and finished with soy ginger dressing. The ‘ahi is so tender it’s obvious just how fresh it is, and the papaya salad tastes like it was harvested this morning, which it likely was. We’re off to a great start.

For our next courses, Susan and I have ordered ala carte, and Melissa brings us four dishes at the same time so we can embrace the mix and match approach: O‘o Farm beets ($11); heirloom carrot risotto ($14); The Three Little Pigs ($14, and I’ll bet you’re dying to know what that is); and a filet of shutome, which has been marinated in fresh herbs and cold pressed olive oil, seasoned with Moloka‘i sea salt, and served with fresh pesto sauce ($24). Other sauce choices for the fresh fish are goat cheese fondue and lobster butter. It was difficult deciding between the three sauces, they all sound so good.

We dive into The Three Little Pigs, a trio of miniature pork roasts bathed in a tawny-colored sauce. They’re composed of all-natural Carlton Farms pork cheek, and braised in Maui ti leaf sweet garlic jus. The pork is meaty and rich, and pairs especially well with the bright orange risotto, which is infused with carrot juice, O‘o Farm baby heirloom carrots, and mint oil. The risotto is divinely creamy, the carrot juice is subtle, and there are tasty little sliced carrot rounds hidden inside.

The beets are also a work of art: warm roasted chunks of burgundy-colored heirloom beets are presented in a phyllo dough cup, with feta cheese, macadamia nuts, and raisins mixed in. The accompanying fresh farm pesto nicely complements the sweetness of the beets and raisins, and elevates the dish to the next level. And then there’s the fish—a perfectly seasoned and prepared shutome filet sits atop a pool of that yummy fresh farm pesto that also accompanies the beets. Ooh, la la…Susan and I can’t get enough of that pesto, and the texture of the shutome filet is exquisite.

For guests preferring to order complete plates, tempting, cleverly-named dishes include the Road to Hana (grilled fresh catch with seasonal fruit, greens, and rice, with passion fruit dressing and basil yogurt accent—$34); Crabby Catch (oven-roasted fresh fish topped with a lightly spiced crab salad over wilted greens, served with roasted corn coconut sauce and O‘o Farm basil pesto accent—$38), and The I‘o Trio (seared fresh catch with lobster coconut curry sauce over mushroom-asparagus risotto, grilled petite filet mignon, and grilled Madras curry and porcini mushroom dusted lamp chop with pineapple demi-glace—$42). Folks who have posted reviews on TripAdvisor rave about The I‘o Trio. We’ll have to save that for next time.

Fortunately, Susan and I have saved room for dessert. I‘o’s “Sweet Retreats” include a raw Tahitian lime pie ($13) and ‘Aina Gourmet coffee cheesecake ($11) that have caught our attention. Melissa says, “It just depends on what you’re looking for at the end of your meal: a light, citrusy dessert, or something richer with chocolate and coffee flavors.” We decide to order one of each.

Susan goes absolutely gaga over the raw lime pie. It’s composed of locally sourced coconut and lime, with a macadamia nut crust, and topped with fresh fruit salsa. The pie is perfect for gluten-free diners, and is free from additives and refined sugar. In keeping with the diet going out the window for the evening concept, I polish off the coffee cheesecake. It’s infused with 100 percent Maui coffee (from O‘o Farms, of course) over an Oreo crust, with Irish cream chocolate sauce. It brings to mind (and palate) a See’s candy cream or Cadbury cream. Either way, it’s decadent and sophisticated.

Chef James McDonald and his team are to be commended for a brilliant dining experience at I‘o Restaurant. This one’s truly a winner in our book.

–heidi pool

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