When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When on Maui, eat like the locals, right?
It only makes sense our visitors would want a taste of our culture. That's just what the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui in Wailea offers at Ko, its al fresco restaurant that opened last year at the site of the former Caffe Ciao.
Now, it's more affordable than ever with the three-course cultural experience for $39 per person, plus tax and tip.
Fairmont Kea Lani photo
Chef de Cuisine Jake Belmonte pulls out all of the ethnic stops at Ko, located outdoors at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui in Wailea. These days, he and the staff are drawing in diners with the new three-course cultural experience menu. You choose dishes from the various countries that represent Maui’s plantation past. They’re also
promoting the new Ko Twilight Dinner served in a private cabana with soft votive candles, music, flowers and more.
"We did so many covers for the recent Wailea Restaurant Week," says Ko's Chef de Cuisine Jake Belmonte. "We realized the price point was a huge hit. Residents of Wailea brought in their visiting friends like crazy, so we decided to keep doing the promotion through the summer months."
So come in and check it out. Or select from the more extensive, regular menu. Either way, you'll be glad you did.
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 fresh Manila clams simmered with watercress, chorizo sausage and sweet Kula corn.
KO FAST FACTS
* Hours: Ko is open daily for dinner service from 5:30 to 9 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.
* $39 prix-fixe: The three-course "cultural experience" includes a starter, entree and dessert for $39 per person, plus tax and tip.
* Keiki deals: Children 5 and younger eat free. Keiki meals are also served in bento boxes and kids get hinged chopsticks.
* For reservations: Call Kea Lani at 875-4100.
Ko actually means "cane," as in "sugar cane" in Hawaiian, and the name represents the ethnic cuisines from the various plantation camps, which were neighborhoods in the old days. The camps ranged from Japanese to Portuguese to Chinese to Puerto Rican and represented all of the immigrant groups who toiled in the fields.
Only Ko's recipes aren't how grandma made it back at Spanish Camp. They are gourmet to the max and will tempt anyone who is lucky enough to try it. Take the American Kobe beef poke served in an arsty hand-thrown ceramic bowl. It melts in your mouth yet you get nice little crunches of Maui onion and cucumber.
The cultural experience meal deal also lets you go all over Maui's tasty ethnic culinary map. You get four choices of starters as well as four choices of entrees and four choices of desserts.
For instance, starters are Filipino lumpia or spring rolls, Portuguese bean soup, Japanese oishi sushi, and Chinese chop-chop chicken salad. I tried the oishi sushi, which literally translates to "good sushi," (and it was) rolled with spicy tuna and tempura batter, deep fried and served crisp in sauce.
The lumpia are from a treasured recipe of Chef Belmonte's. You may choose shrimp or pork, or chicken and mushroom. Both come with green pickled papaya and they're crunchy and hot.
The food was as tempting as the last time I dined there and the staff was still keen to show off Maui's culture and cuisine.
"Ko is bigger than a concept. It's about the people of Hawaii," says the resort's executive chef, Tylun Pang, full-blooded Chinese and third-generation Mauian. "Ko is like inviting you into our home and sharing our culture with you. Cooking for you. That's really what hospitality is all about."
Since Pang oversees the entire hotel, he promoted Belmonte, his star protege, to run the culinary side of Ko.
Belmonte is one of Maui Culinary Academy's success stories 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.
"For the three-course cultural experience, we do entrees such as Filipino pancit noodles," he says. "And Korean-style spicy chicken, paniolo rib-eye steak, makai catch, and Ko fried rice."
The fresh catch may be ordered wok-seared with spicy black-bean sauce, grilled with miso butter, crusted with macadamia nuts in tomato-ginger broth, or served haole style with lemon-herb butter. You choose.
The chocolate baked custard with Wailua Estate chocolate from the North Shore of Oahu is a must try. "Our pastry chef was able to get high-end, locally sourced chocolate and it comes with mac-nut praline crust and Kula-strawberry sorbet," says Belmonte.
The menu offers wine and sake pairings. "A big percent are organic, biodynamic and sustainable," says Food and Beverage Director Pete Sylvester.
Want an intimate, private dining experience? Try the Ko Twilight Dinner in a cabana with glowing votives and menu of your choice. "We have a high success rate on wedding proposals," Sylvester says. "You're out there in your own little pocket of bliss."