vana pa‘ia restaurant & sushi bar: the new north shore hot spot

Vana Pa‘ia Restaurant & Sushi Bar, located in the North Shore’s boutique hotel Pa‘ia Inn, is the talk of the laid-back, Bohemian surf town whose popularity is soaring these days.

Open since November, Vana is quickly making its mark as the place to see and be seen, while enjoying highly creative, sophisticated cuisine; finely crafted prohibition-inspired cocktails; and a carefully curated wine list—all presented in a secluded, courtyard-style atmosphere that confirms you’ve discovered a bona fide neighborhood gem.

Pa‘ia Inn owner Michael Baskin has assembled an impressive A-team for his new restaurant venture. The kitchen is led by Co-Executive Chefs Nick Gerstmar and Sean Ikeda; veteran Sommelier Vanessa Lampson does double duty as food and beverage director; while Mixologist Danny Dispo holds court at the turquoise-hued bar tucked cozily under a staircase.

Hailing from Oregon, Chef Nick was most recently sous chef at Loft Restaurant & Bar. Chef Sean moved to Maui last year from Boston, where he was head sushi chef at Ebi Sushi Co. Vanessa is a familiar face on the Maui food and beverage scene, having previously been Wine Director at the Montage Kapalua Bay. Danny recently relocated to Maui from Buffalo, New York, one of the coldest spots in the United States. I’m guessing this winter’s frigid weather on the East Coast has confirmed Danny made a good choice by moving here!

The restaurant’s name is derived from the phonetic spelling of wana—“sea urchin” in Hawaiian. “We originally wanted to name the restaurant Wana,” Vanessa explains. “But we were concerned visitors might have difficulty with the pronunciation [since “w” is pronounced as “v” in Hawaiian]. We then considered calling it Vana, and found that word has beautiful meaning on its own. In Sanskrit, Vana means water, and in Swedish it means a custom or way of life. Wrapping all those meanings together, we loved what Vana represents, as well as the sound of the word itself and the architectural shape of the letters.”

The menu at Vana is divided into five sections: Salads, Bites, Sushi, Hot, and Sweet. The two chefs collaborate on salads, bites, and sweet, while Chef Sean commandeers the sushi selections, and Chef Nick the hot dishes. Janet is my companion this evening, and we decide it would be fun to take an omakase (“I’ll leave it up to you” in Japanese) approach to this evening’s dining experience. Chefs Nick and Sean are more than happy to comply.

Our first small plate is Blistered Shishitos ($10), served with maple-sesame dust and balsamic reduction, and a garnish of micro greens. They’re gorgeously plated on an oblong piece of black slate. Surprisingly mild, the peppers have a bold, smoky flavor that’s highly addictive. Vanessa tells us eating shishitos are akin to playing Russian Roulette. “On average, one in ten shishitos is really spicy, and you never know which one it will be.” We must have drawn the lucky batch, as none of them set our hair on fire!

Meanwhile, Danny has stopped by to discuss cocktails. He is highly passionate about ice (from his upbringing in New York?), and shares with us how he pares down large slabs of ice to order. “Ice is the most important, and often overlooked, element of a cocktail,” he tells us. “It’s essential for proper aeration, dilution, and temperature.” He starts with a 12 x 20-inch ice block obtained from Maui Island Ice in Wailuku. Using an old serrated knife, he scores the block, then applies steady pressure until the ice gives way. The result of Danny’s efforts are crystal-clear pieces of ice with no imperfections. We admire his handywork in the dazzling “Second Surf” cocktail: Amaro Cynar, La Cigarrera Manzanilla Sherry, lime, grapefruit, and soda ($13). It’s the color of a blazing Maui sunset, and Danny’s ice “cube” stands sentry in one fluent piece from the bottom to the top of the glass. Amazing!

Our next taste sensation is the Vana Spoon ($14) composed of sea urchin, caviar, thickened dashi, wasabi, yuzu, wine, and lime served whimsically in a ceramic spoon. It’s all at once salty, bright, silky, and decadent. When server Kendra brings us the Tomato Burrata ($14), we both gasp in appreciation of its beauty. Thick slices of glistening local heirloom tomatoes—red, yellow, and green—are topped with crunchy fresh greens and radish slices, and a huge sphere of the creamiest burrata you can ever imagine eating. It’s all dressed with basil vinaigrette, drizzled with a balsamic reduction, and dusted with finely chopped kukui nut in a tribute to Hawaiian culture. Janet and I both roll our eyes heavenward as we savor this stunning, sumptuous dish.

The Hamachi Jalapeño ($16) is another visually sensational dish. Slices of uber-fresh, thinly sliced yellowtail are fanned out on a gleaming, round black plate. Each is topped with a circle of jalapeño, while an accompanying slaw is flavored with calamansi and mint. The flavors and textures marry surprisingly well, with the jalapeño contributing just the right amount of zing. Next we sample the Sake Aburi ($10): seared salmon belly with honey-lime soy sauce and fried chili garlic, presented nigiri style. It’s a seductive bite that feels delicate and buttery on the palate.

The seared Foie Gras ($12) is also served nigiri style, and the two plump morsels are wrapped up like enticing little gifts. Delicately seared Hudson Valley foie gras is rich and flavorful, and the bonito soy sauce ties it all together (pun intended!). When we think it can’t get any better, Kendra brings us the Egg & Caviar ($15), which I can’t seem to stop eating. An elegant six-minute egg topped with a healthy-sized dollop of Chataluga caviar sits in a pool of savory thickened dashi broth. Punctuating the dish are two delicate slices of truffle-fried lotus root. This dish is a perfect example of how the chefs at Vana are taking classic luxury ingredients and making them accessible.

From the Hot section of the menu, we practically devour the Pan Seared Scallops ($21) and Hanger Steak ($24). The aroma from the scallops is intoxicating. These nicely textured sea creatures are beautifully presented with a lovely saffron beurre blanc and creamy parsnip puree, with julienned beets and fresh greens for texture. The Hanger Steak is cooked to a perfect medium rare. It’s thinly sliced, and surrounded by a boldly flavored kombu red wine jus and rich miso butter. A mound of sautéed kale under the steak provides a nice flavor contrast.

Janet and I finish our spectacular meal at Vana with a plate of cheeses, toasted baguette slices, fresh fruit, and peppered Marcona almonds ($14)—my kind of dessert.

Although we’ve not sampled any wines this evening, Vanessa shares her approach to curating Vana’s wine menu: “I selected versatile wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol to offset the richness of the food, and to bridge courses from sushi to salad to umami, or savory, tastes. We have a large breadth of selection, but it’s very focused. And some of our wines are available only in Hawai‘i.”

Janet and I have enjoyed our dining experience at Vana tremendously, and we both predict huge success with its refined cuisine, thoughtful wine list, cleverly concocted cocktails, and appealing ambiance.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •
Vana Pa‘ia Restaurant & Sushi Bar, celebrating the flavors of Hawai‘i, and showcasing locally grown ingredients and Japanese-inspired dishes.

WHERE •
At the Pa‘ia Inn, 93 Hana Hwy., Pa‘ia Town. Enter street side.

WHEN •
Brunch is served daily from 8am to 2pm; dinner is Wednesday-Sunday from 5 to 10pm; late night on Saturdays until midnight. Happy hour is from 5-6:30pm & 9-10pm Wednesday – Sunday.

HOW •
Reservations highly recommended: Call 579-6002 or visit vanapaia.com; opentable.com.



%d bloggers like this: