On Maui, it makes sense that our visitors would want a taste of our culture. That’s just what Fairmont Kea Lani Maui in Wailea offers at Ko, its new al fresco restaurant that opened May 22 at the site of the former Caffe Ciao.
“With Caffe Ciao, we had a great Italian restaurant, a great run,” says Executive Chef Tylun Pang. “This move has everything to do with the hotel’s new direction.”
The direction has hotel General Manager Chris Luedi embracing Hawaii from his canoe paddling to the outer reaches of the island chain to the food and the culture.
Ko’s plantation-inspired cuisine covers all the bases in our ethnic salad bowl, from Japanese lobster tempura, dipped in sauces of spicy sesame, pineapple-sweet-chili-and- garlic and grapefruit-soy to Filipino steamed fresh Manila clams topped with chorizo, sweet Kula corn and watercress.
Ko actually means “cane,” as in sugar cane in Hawaiian, and so it represents the ethnic cuisines from the various plantation “camps,” neighborhoods in the old days that housed Portuguese, Korean and Puerto Rican people who worked in the fields.
Only these recipes aren’t how grandma made it back at Nashiwa Camp. They are gourmet to the max and will tempt anyone lucky enough to try them. Take the American Kobe beef poke served in an arty, hand-thrown ceramic bowl. It melts in your mouth yet you get nice little crunches of Maui onion and cucumber.
The excitement was palpable on recent visits as the staff was really pumped to show off their culture and cuisine. You dine under the stars and the flowering trees and know you are in Hawaii.
“Ko is bigger than a concept. It’s about the people of Hawaii,” says Pang, full-blooded Chinese and third generation here. “Ko is like inviting visitors into our home and sharing our culture with them. Cooking for them. That’s really what hospitality is all about.”
Speaking of hospitality, Ko will take center stage at the Maui Film Festival at Wailea’s opening night Wednesday from 5 to 7.
“We’ll promote a lot of Ko at the opening of the film festival. We’ll use opening night to feature and to explain what it’s about,” says Pang. “Our food is locally grown and caught.”
There will be five action stations with most of the menu highlighted and Pang will do cake noodles with ginger-oyster sauce — a recipe by his dad. “We kicked up the house cake noodles with lots of shrimp,” he says. “You actually see plenty shrimp on the plate.”
Since Pang oversees the entire hotel and events such as Taste of Ko, he promoted his star protege, Jake Belmonte, to run Ko as chef de cuisine.
Belmonte is a Maui Culinary Academy success story and he’s been at Kea Lani since day one. He was born in the Philippines and moved here at 15. He gets inspired by tales of his father, who was a first-generation plantation worker in the early ’30s.
A treasured recipe from Jake’s mom produced the lumpia, which are basically Filipino spring rolls. You may choose shrimp or pork or chicken and mushroom — both with green pickled papaya. Hot and crunchy, the lumpia may be eaten with your fingers or chopsticks and dipped into spicy sauce.
“A couple of Filipino girls on staff brought in a champorado, which is chocolate rice pudding, so we added it to the dessert menu,” says Pang. “It’s about the food of the people. We really soul searched. It’s not about me. It’s what we do here as a team.”
The pride of the team is readily apparent. They know all the dishes from heart. It’s the exact opposite of, say, having locals explain the nuances of imported cheeses to guests from Italy. Confident smiles stretch from ear to ear. They get it. They love to tell you all about it. Then the warm and fuzzy feeling transfers to you.
“We try not to fuse it and then confuse it,” says Pang, in reference to the popular fusion cuisine all over Hawaii. “We use flavors that are true to the culture.”
Kea Lani’s Food and Beverage Director Pete Sylvester agrees. “We tried to capture the diverse ethnic backgrounds in the camps. Some of these family recipes have passed down, generation after generation and we added our modern twists.” A haole from the mainland, Sylvester spent countless hours working on the look and the feel of Ko. The cool green linen tablecloths and the brown napkins are soothing. He also came up with wonderful table centerpieces.
Speaking of haole, what did they contribute to the plantation camp cuisine? “The haole component of Russians and Germans add butter, cream and sauces to some of our dishes,” says Sylvester.
One dish with a tasty great sauce is ahi “on the rock.” It’s interactive in the sense they bring a hot ishiyaki stone to the table and you cook your own sashimi- grade chunks of fresh ahi on them to your desired doneness. Then you dip them into orange ginger and miso sauce. This and the complimentary edahummus with furikake rice crackers will have you coming back for more. The latter is soybeans mixed with garlic, lemon and chiles, served on rice crackers made by a machine from Korea. “The machine toasts up the crackers and tosses them out like a frisbee,” says Pang, obviously excited about his new toy.
What to drink with all of these local favorites? The restaurant’s General Manager Alika Youn, of Hawaiian, Korean, Spanish, Cherokee, Welsh and Irish descent, has put together an awesome sake list to pair with foods. But ask bartender Lloyd “Korean” Yukawa about the beer and the wine offerings as well.
Pastry Chef Ricky De Beer bakes marbled taro and Portuguese sweet bread rolls to accompany dinner and serves them with Maui lavender honey. Desserts include mochi sampler and banana lumpia with caramel sauce and fresh organic coconut Ono Gelato of Paia.
“Everyone had a hand in the recipes. Everyone feels like a big part of Ko,” says Pang. “The cuisine is reflective of our culture.”
Chef de Cuisine Jake Belmonte (clockwise, from top left) toasts to the new Ko, which opened in the former Caffe Ciao at Fairmont Kea Lani Maui a few weeks ago. Server Rachel Shealy, General Manager Alika Youn and his assistant manager, Jonelle Kamai, also are happy about the new al fresco dining experience next to the adult pool area.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Fact BoxKo fast facts
• Hours: Ko is open daily for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. and for dinner service from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
• The name: Translated from Hawaiian, Ko means “cane,” as in sugar cane.
• The concept: Ko utilizes recipes and cuisines from the old sugar plantation camps, and adds a modern, gourmet twist.
• Keiki deals:?Children 5 and younger eat free. Keiki meals are also served in bento boxes and kids get hinged chopsticks.
• Taste of Ko: The grand opening event is Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.
• For reservations: Call Kea Lani at 875-4100.