banyan tree at the ritz-carlton kapalua: gorgeously reimagined and firmly rooted in local ingredients

The recently transformed Banyan Tree restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua led by new Head Chef Isabelle “Bella” Toland, pays tribute to its namesake by rooting itself in the traditions and ingredients of our ‘aina (land). In ancient Hawaiian culture, land was regarded as the provider of everything: food, shelter over your head, and a place to plant your feet and stand firm. Chef Bella’s vibrant new menu embraces that spirit and invites diners on a journey to discover the roots of the land, ­while incorporating the island’s most unique and sustainable ingredients. And the restaurant’s metamorphosis pays homage to the history of banyan trees in Hawai‘i as a gathering place to meet and share a meal.

After being closed for nearly a year, The Banyan Tree unveiled its brand-new look, ambiance, and menu in late May, just in time for the busy summer season. The interi­­or redesign is absolutely stunning: a hand-crafted wooden bar wraps around the center of the restaurant allowing for an open concept with expansive views. Liberal use of hardwoods and stone bring the outdoors in, while every accoutrement, down to the natural ramie table runners, and flatware whose distressed pattern resembles the texture of a tree trunk, support the earthy theme. A muted color palette nicely complements the breathtaking views of Kapalua Bay, reminiscent of the harmonious colors of land and sky. And the open-air design allows for enjoyment of the natural breezes the area is known for.

Born in Bordeaux, France, and having lived her teenage years in Manila, Philippines, Chef Bella often draws inspiration for her dishes from the flavors found in these traditional cuisines. She joined The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua from Travaasa Hana, where she directed the resort’s food and beverage efforts as executive chef for three years. Prior to that, she worked for Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group in Las Vegas and Los Angeles before being promoted to sous chef of the group’s Spago venue at Four Seasons Resort Maui. During her time at Spago and Travaasa, she immersed herself in learning to prepare traditional Hawaiian dishes. At The Banyan Tree, Chef Bella has reconstructed and redesigned classic Hawaiian recipes with a local twist using Mediterranean cooking techniques. “I’m grateful to be a world nomad with many cultures involved in my cooking and lifestyle,” she says.

After being shown to our table, Janet and I are greeted by 21-year Banyan Tree veteran server Dustin, who remembers us from previous visits. Even though the restaurant has only been reopened for a short time, Dustin has an excellent command of the menu, and makes several tempting recommendations.

To begin our dining experience, Janet and I have made selections from the nicely curated Signature Cocktails list. She has chosen “By The Kiawe Fire” ($21), while I’ve decided to try the “Hibiscus High Tide” ($17). Janet’s drink is uniquely presented by Dustin, who pours the concoction from a vessel with an extremely long spout into a glass filled with ice topped with an orange peel; the latter provides a pleasant aroma while the drink is sipped. Layered flavors of chili, liquor, and pineapple take it to a higher level, ending on a slightly sweet note. My cocktail is a gorgeous pink color, and the restaurant’s logo is stamped on an edible rice paper banner that floats atop an egg-white foam. Rose hibiscus raspberry syrup adds a seductive smoothness.

Janet and I proceed to a trio of appetizers: Kona Maine Lobster Lumpia ($28), Filipino Crepe ($18), and Island Style Ceviche ($28). The lumpia are bursting with luscious lobster meat, and the wrappers are fried to a lovely golden brown, making them meaty and crunchy at the same time. These little cylinders of goodness are accompanied by an addictive calamansi sweet chili sauce that I’d like to make at home and put on absolutely everything.

Next, we dive into the Filipino Crepe, with its bright, farm-fresh taste provided by crisp Hana greens, aromatic mint, and tender Hamakua hearts of palm; a nice pop of citrus from the warm orange-ginger glaze; and a little heat at the end from spicy peanuts. Chef Bella’s ceviche presentation is one to behold: a half coconut contains a heaping portion of opakapaka chunks, jicama, papaya, and serrano chilies, dressed with cane vinegar, and surrounded by the most beautiful deep purple sweet potato chips we’ve ever seen. The chips are sturdy enough to be the perfect mechanism to deliver the savory ceviche to your mouth.

Janet spotted Feed Me The Greens! on the menu ($16), and she’s dying to try this combination of local greens, herbs, cukes, and those spicy peanuts again, all dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette, and sprinkled with crispy shallots and garlic. Dustin is more than happy to comply with Janet’s craving. It’s a brilliant combination of flavors and textures—definitely not your typical salad.

For entrées, Janet and I have selected the Fisherman’s Choice (uku—$48) and Give Me The Beef ($53). The uku is another dazzling presentation by Chef Bella: a generous portion of shallow-water blue-green snapper is nestled on a bed of tasty garlic rice with a layer of blistered shishito peppers in between; piquant fennel, smoky local bacon, and tomato/lemon butter round out this perfectly balanced dish that’s beautifully punctuated with edible flower petals.

Give Me The Beef is a wickedly delicious, sliced rib-eye steak that’s accompanied by charred onions, shishito peppers, mushrooms, pickles, a decadent smoked chimichurri, and sizeable Waipoli butter lettuce cups so you can construct your own bundles of complex flavors and textures. I am absolutely over the moon about this beef—it’s easily the best rib-eye I’ve ever consumed.

After placing our dessert order with Dustin (Bibingka & Tea—$14), Janet and I step outside to observe this evening’s fire-knife dance. Preceded by the traditional blowing of the pu, and accompanied by pulsing drumbeats, the dancer emerges in a blaze of glory. After lighting all of the torches surrounding the restaurant, he performs a series of thrilling and mesmerizing twirls, tosses, and turns, while the audience shouts and whistles their appreciation.

Back inside, Janet and I enjoy our bibingka (Filipino coconut-rice cake). Not only is it fun to say “bibingka,” but it’s even better eating it. Chef Bella’s version is butterless, and the texture has got me hooked. It’s served with an unusual herbal tea made with turmeric, ginger, and honey. That the tea is soothing makes sense, since ginger aids in digestion, and turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties.

Chef Bella has been quite busy this evening, but she manages to stop by our table for a quick visit. “I’ve really tried to present a more ‘vegetable forward’ menu,” she tells us. “And the edible flowers are a nod to my ‘girlie side.’” Girlie or not, both Janet and I believe Chef Bella is going to continue to be a rising star on the Maui culinary scene. “We are thrilled to have [Bella] Toland join our extraordinary team,” says Kevin Peterson, hotel manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “[Her] incredible expertise and understanding of the local area have positioned her to propel our culinary efforts on a global scale, all the while continuing to stay true to The Ritz-Carlton brand and our cherished culture of Hawai‘i.”

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Banyan Tree Restaurant, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s renowned and reimagined signature dining establishment.

WHERE •

The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, 1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Kapalua.

WHEN •

The Banyan Tree serves dinner nightly from 5 to 9pm. Tiki Hour is nightly from 5-6pm, featuring 50% savings on Lite Bites menu items and Moet Imperial Champagne by the glass.

HOW •

Reservations highly recommended: 669-6200; banyantreekapalua.com; opentable.com.

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