When we feasted at Spago last week, it was as if the master chef himself cooked our over-the-top meal.
From the signature spicy ahi tuna poke in sesame-seed miso cones to the oh-so-crispy skinned monchong in ginger-sake glaze with chive-potato puree, we took pleasure in each and every bite.
In addition, the two-top tables with both seats facing the ocean and the sunset made for a romantic evening and the service was phenomenal. I must say, it was the best meal I've had on Maui in awhile.
“It doesn’t get any better than here on Maui,” chef-author and TV personality Wolfgang Puck said on a recent Wailea visit to his Spago Maui restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Maui. This past weekend, “Wolf” whipped up a feast in Los Angeles as the official caterer of the Oscars. “It’s an Asian theme this year,” he said. He will return to Maui in March.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
I had chatted with Wolfgang a few weeks earlier when he was in town for one of his regular visits and he explained why things are so consistent.
"In times like these, when things may be slow, we have to be more careful and even do a better job," he insisted. "We want to make a good impression."
It also helps that his protege in his Maui kitchen, Cameron Lewark, was trained by him at age 17 at the legendary Granita in Los Angeles and has been with him ever since. Wolfgang works with Cameron when he's on Maui and then Cameron trains the rest of the staff to his specifications.
Spago at a glance:
* Where: Located lobby level at Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea.
* Kamaaina deals: Enjoy one free entree (of equal or lesser value) with the purchase of another entree when two Hawaii drivers licenses are presented.
* Deals for all: Be seated from 5:30 to 6 p.m. or from 8:45 to 9:30 p.m. and you may enjoy a three- course menu for $50. It celebrates Hawaii's 50th anniversary.
* The Maui players: General manager is Jacques Perwin, chef de cuisine is Cameron Lewark, and sommelier is Drew Niles.
* Menu highlights: Kula corn risotto with sweet shrimp; grilled Kobe-style strip loin; ginger-and-macadamia-nut-crusted mahimahi with coconut puree.
* Hours: The bar opens at 5 p.m., and the dining room offers seatings from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m.
* For reservations: Call 879-2999.
"I think of everyone here as my family," he said. "People laugh and say, 'How can you say that with so many restaurants? But we really are."
In fact, two weeks ago, Wolfgang flew his entire management staff from his dozens of restaurants to Las Vegas to cheer them up and reassure them. They all stayed at the Palazzo and dined fine.
"Wolfgang told us, 'Everything is fine - relax, there is a future,' " says Spago Maui General Manager Jacques Perwin, who used to run CUT in Los Angeles for the world- famous chef. "He said, 'This is the time to look for even more possibilities.' "
Wolfgang told me there is a possibility of another CUT coming to Hawaii, and he's looking at locations now.
"I love Hawaii, but I REALLY love Maui," he says. "What's not to like? I went to my Spago in Vail, Colorado, first, because if I came here first, I wouldn't leave! I don't even think there's a reason to leave the Four Seasons property! I truly like being in my restaurants. It's always like a home away from home."
While many of his signature dishes may be found at his various restaurants around the country, each menu is distinct and offers what's fresh and sustainable.
"I think that when people come here they expect fish. When you go to Oklahoma or Alberta, you want meat. Onaga and opah with a little spice are my favorites. Walu is really delicious, too."
Spago Maui broils miso-marinated walu and serves it with cucumber salad, avocado, green onions and sesame aioli. It also offers a light and refreshing sashimi and tartare of tuna with yuzu-citrus ponzu with radish salad and pumpkin-seed oil.
Wolfgang also writes a syndicated column that runs in 30 newspapers across the nation and a recent article he expounded on "eating more fish." "With every new report about the health effects of the foods we eat, fish is a smart choice," he says.
Indeed, Spago Maui features even more fish options and you'll get omega-3 fatty acids that promote good hearth health. The steamed salmon Hong Kong style with snap peas is packed full of flavor, too. So is the pineapple red Thai curry with mahimahi and scallops, with coconut, kaffir lime, Thai basil and green papaya salad. Another top seller is wok-fried whole fish Thai style with hearts of palm and shiitake mushrooms.
Spago also appeals to vegetarians with its Kamuela sweet tomato soup with Ligurian olive oil and basil cream, and angel-hair pasta with fresh tomatoes.
Meat lovers will find grilled Chinois lamb chops Hunan style, pan-roasted organic free range chicken, caramelized pork chop with Maui pineapple and papaya, and grilled prime bone-in steak.
"The tasting menu is always another option," says Perwin. "It's not something that's printed and offered to every guest. But it's something people continue to ask for and we're happy to assist."
You may order it with or without wine pairings and new sommelier Drew Niles is friendly and knowledgeable. As regular Maui diners know, sommeliers here are going the way of the dinosaur and it's nice to have an expert to help with choices. The wine list is pretty impressive, too.
"We've got about a $200,000 inventory of wine," says Drew, from the acclaimed Campanile in Los Angeles prior to moving here. "I've been to restaurants with mundane wine lists and it certainly detracts from the meal. It's fun to work at a place that keeps expanding and presenting really attractive and great wines."
But do save room for breads and desserts.
"We always try to take care of the local people," says Wolfgang. "And, Maui, it doesn't get better than this."