mala ocean tavern: new(ish) owners cooking up exciting things

The funky pistachio-green exterior of MALA Ocean Tavern belies what awaits when you step inside this iconic oceanfront restaurant that’s been serving up delectable food and gorgeous sunsets for 15 years. Established in 2004 by Mark Ellman, one of the founders of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, along with wife Judy and daughters Ariana and Michelle, MALA is renowned for its distinctive brand of Mediterranean and Pacific Rim cuisine.

Until last November, the Ellman Family presided over a powerhouse trifecta of Lahaina restaurants which, besides MALA, included two adjacent dining establishments: Honu Seafood & Pizza and Frida’s Mexican Beach House. In a surprise move, the Ellmans sold MALA to the bright, ambitious (and successful) owners of Down the Hatch­­, also in Lahaina. Since then, these new(ish) owners have taken the MALA ball and run with it. Big time.

In addition to serving dinner nightly from 4:30 to 10pm, MALA now offers daily brunch/lunch from 9am to 2pm; Happy Hour every day from 2 to 4:30pm; and the all-new MALA ‘til Midnight promotion from 10am to 12am, offering late-night food and drink specials. Concierge readers will be happy to know about the MALA Money program: For every guest booked, you’ll be rewarded with $2.50 in MALA Money. Reservations must be phoned in, as online reservations are not eligible. Provide your full name to ensure you receive credit for the reservation. MALA Money may be used to dine at the restaurant, and monthly and yearly prizes will be given to top performers.

Linda and I are joined for dinner by General Manager Caleb Hopkins, who’s also one of the restaurant’s five partners. We’re eager to hear about the ownership transfer which, Caleb tells us, was an entire year in the making. “It was a year’s process from the initial conversation [with the Ellmans] until we were handed the keys,” he says, “and we were not allowed to say a word about it to anyone.” Talk about a secrecy pact!

“Mark [Ellman] gave me the opportunity to work in the restaurant for the entire month of October and learn the ins and outs,” Caleb continues. “It [buying the restaurant] was a package deal—the recipes, menus, tables, china, glassware, cutlery, and napkins …everything was included. On November 1, 2018, at the stroke of midnight, MALA became ours, and we were presented with the ‘keys to the castle.’ We inherited a wonderful staff, and have been fortunate to retain nearly all of them.” Including veteran server John, who’s taking care of our every need this evening.

Each dinner at MALA begins with a delectable pupu that’s presented in a weighty black lava-rock bowl: a mound of creamy edamame hummus, surrounded by house-made tomatillo salsa, is served with crisp tortilla chips perfect for dipping. The salsa has just the right amount of brightness to offset the richness of the hummus. This app should be served with a warning that it’s highly addictive!

To quench our thirst, Linda and I are enjoying selections from the beverage menu: the No-Jito (mint, lime juice, and lemonade—$7.75) for her, and the Spa Day cocktail (cucumber vodka, fresh watermelon juice, lime and mint—$14) for me. Both drinks are light and refreshing, and pair nicely with the mild spiciness of the appetizer that I can’t seem to stop eating.

Straight out of the barrel, Caleb insists we must try the Charred Octopus and Housemade Chorizo ($38). Neither Linda nor I are particularly wild about octopus, but we put our faith in Caleb. And, my goodness, are we happy we did. Caleb explains the octopus is brined, then cooked sous-vide style. It literally melts in your mouth. And the chorizo packs the right amount of heat as to not overpower the octopus. Herb-roasted fingerling potatoes, a seductive mojo verde sauce, and crunchy celery salad round out this perfectly executed creation. “Mark ran this dish as a special,” explains Caleb. “But we’ve added it to the regular menu because it was so popular.” Smart move.

Next, we dive into one of MALA’s signature starters, the ‘Ahi Bruschetta (two pieces for $17; four for $34). “This is the dish that put our restaurant on the map,” enthuses Caleb. It’s easy to see why: glistening slices of gorgeous, ruby-red ‘ahi are topped with the same luxurious edamame hummus from the appetizer plus juicy Kamuela tomatoes, then nestled between delicate slices of locally baked flax-seed toast. Each “sandwich” is accented with tasty microgreens and finished with 20-year aged balsamic. It’s quite simply outstanding.
As the sun begins its nightly descent behind the neighboring island of Lana‘i, we switch into salad mode with a delightful combination of uber-sweet, incredibly succulent watermelon wedges that have been showered with feta, cucumbers, red onion, mint, and mixed olives ($15). Wait a minute, was that olives and watermelon? You betcha. I’d never have thought to pair them, but it’s wildly successful.
MALA’s atmosphere embodies a friendly, easy-going seaside tavern, just as the name implies. “One of the best things we inherited from Mark and Judy is the ambiance—your family, our food,” says Caleb. “We changed the décor a bit, but we always want to keep it homey and comfy.”
Since there are three of us dining, it only makes sense to share three entrees, right? Garlic and Artichoke Crusted Market Fish ($43); Fresh Fish A La Plancha ($39); and Grilled All-Natural Angus Filet Mignon ($49) give us an opportunity to experience some of the best MALA has to offer. The garlic and artichoke crusted mahimahi is moist as all get out. It’s accompanied by herb-roasted fingerling potatoes, sautéed spinach, and a piquillo pepper coulis that Linda and I think should be sold by the bottle.
Our second entrée features mouthwatering ono that’s been cooked a la plancha (on the griddle). It’s served atop a heaping mound of velvety Moloka‘i purple mashed potatoes and yukon gold potato puree, surrounded by that same seductive mojo verde sauce we experienced earlier with the octopus, and served with grilled pita triangles seasoned with dukkah, a fragrant Egyptian condiment. Rounding out our entrée trio, the filet mignon is cooked to a perfect medium rare. On the side is that dreamy yukon potato puree, plump ali‘i mushrooms, sautéed spinach, roasted eggplant, crispy shallots, and a savory ginger bordelaise sauce that elevates the dish to a high level of sophistication.
No dinner at MALA would be complete without indulging in the trademark Caramel Miranda ($15 for small; $22 for large), Mark’s signature dessert composed of a melted dark chocolate and caramel sauce-lined plate that’s finished with a variety of broiled fresh island fruits, coquito (Puerto Rican coconut eggnog), and vanilla/mac nut ice cream. It’s a genius combination that’s absolutely spectacular.
MALA’s new(ish) ownership group is certainly carrying on the long-held tradition of amazing food with friendly service established by the Ellmans. Long-time server John shares, “This is the finest service I’ve ever seen in any of the restaurants where I’ve worked. It’s all about the quality of the food, and making sure everyone is happy, including us. I’m really blessed to work here.”

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

MALA Ocean Tavern, offering oceanfront dining, delicious culinary cocktails, an excellent wine selection, and exceptional cuisine…all with a relaxed Maui feel.

WHERE •

1307 Front St., in Lahaina. Free valet parking service available from 4:30 to 9pm.

WHEN •

MALA is open daily for brunch from 9am to 2pm; Happy Hour is 2 to 4:30pm; dinner is served from 4:30 to 10pm; and late-night MALA ‘til Midnight runs from 10pm until midnight.

HOW •

Reservations are highly recommended: 667-9394; http://www.malaoceantavern.com; opentable.com.­

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