It's the combination of things that always makes me want to come back to Tropica at the Westin Maui Resort Hotel & Spa in Kaanapali.
Cool, meandering streams and splashing man-made waterfalls enhance the ocean and island views. Around sunset, live tunes by Benny Uetake or Mitch Kepa get me in the tropical groove.
It is "Tropica," after all. Of course, the menu tempts me with its island ingredients. New Chef de Cuisine Rich Hinojosa does the open-air and under-the-stars restaurant justice with his modern-American style with influences from the Mediterranean countries of France, Italy and Spain.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Chef de Cuisine Rich Hinojosa was at the Phoenician and ran his own high-end catering company before moving to Maui to run the kitchens of Tropica at the Westin Maui Resort Hotel & Spa in Kaanapali.
"I had to leave the signature items for the repeat guests," says the chef. "But I'm now bringing on some nice, vibrant flavors. When I first got here, I spent a few months banging around the farms."
And, many of his cooks are from here, so they always bring in ingredients for him to play with and try.
His fire-kitchen specialties are the New Caledonia prawns with frisee, greens beans, chive and uni butter. The prawns, as Maui foodies know, are ultra-clean and grown and distributed worldwide by the people who own Buzz's Wharf in Maalaea. And, the uni sauce is made from sea urchin plucked from Maui waters.
Diners find deals galore at Westin Maui Resort Hotel & Spa
* WHERE: Tropica is located oceanfront and along the beach walk at the Westin?Maui Resort Hotel & Spa in Kaanapali.
* HOURS: Open daily for breakfast buffet from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; a la carte breakfast until 11 a.m.; happy hour from 3 to 5 p.m.; and dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m.
* KIDS EAT FREE: Each child 5 and younger eats for free, when accompanied by an adult at either Tropica or Ono Bar and Grill.
* TROPICA MENU HIGHLIGHTS: Ahi charbroiled to medium rare; seared diver scallops; prime beef flat-iron steak; and butter-poached Kona lobster with pea puree.
* SWEET ENDINGS: Pineapple fritters; frozen banana-pecan mousse; chocolate cappuccino; and small plates in combo of your choice.
* KAMAAINA PACKAGE: $94.50 per person, per night includes early check-in at 2 p.m. and late check-out, when available. Those with Hawaii ID also get 25 percent off meals at restaurants and a complimentary upgrade. Call 1-888-625-4949 and ask for rate plan KAMVIP.
* WAILELE POLYNESIAN LUAU: Every Tuesday, doors open at 5:45 p.m. and the Aloha Pavilion comes alive with Maui's only five-member fire dance troupe along with hula show, family-style dinner at communal tables and free flow of drinks. Call 661-2992.
* FOR DINNER RESERVATIONS: Call 667-2525.
"I highlight the naturally clean flavors of the sweet prawns and lightly sear them," says Chef Hinojosa. "The uni creates the balance. Each dish is thought out - a harmony of flavors."
Local Meyer lemons accent the golden potato gnocchi topped with local honey and toasted pistachios. The crunch of crispy skinned pork is perfect with melted leeks and kim chee.
From the Phoenician in Arizona before moving to the Westin, Chef Hinojosa was also a high-end caterer and cellar master, so he knows his wines.
Each menu item offers a wine pairing, if you choose to indulge. It's nice to not have to think about choices and instead kick back and enjoy the experience.
The seared diver scallops with braised fennel and blood-orange reduction pairs well with Craggy Range sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
Ahi seared medium rare is served with roasted-tomato couscous, sea beans, mizuna and Ali'i mushrooms on opal-basil reduction. It pairs with Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster pinot noir.
The chef also delights diners with his prime beef flat-iron steak served with white bean puree, pisto Manchego, red-onion jam and chimichurri with Peter Lehmann shiraz blend from South Australia.
"We're going to start to do a Chef's Table at the end of March," says Hinojosa. "We'll do trial runs, pairing menu items from local wholesalers with wines. We'll fire everything up in the exhibition kitchen and then explain what we're doing."