Just like the rest of Hawaii's restaurants situated ground level near the ocean, Ko was closed for lunch Saturday during the tsunami warning.
But since then, Fairmont Kea Lani Maui Resort's outdoor restaurant under shade trees and next to the adult pool in Wailea has been jumping as usual.
"I arrived at work Saturday morning with my crisis manual ready for anything," says Wendy Harvey, the hotel's director of public relations. "We relocated our oceanfront villa people and then invited everyone to hang out in our Luana Lounge."
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
Fairmont Kea Lani Maui Resort’s Director of Food and Beverage Pete Sylvester toasts to Ko Restaurant Manager Karen Hagberg about all of the current deals at the popular outdoor restaurant.
"It was a very comfortable atmosphere up there with music and whales jumping right off Polo Beach closer than I've ever seen. When you give people food and beverages, they are just fine."
Now, it's back to business as usual at Ko, renowned for its plantation-inspired cuisine. The menu covers all of the bases in Maui's ethnic salad bowl, from Korean-style spicy chicken to crispy Filipino lumpia or "spring rolls" to Chinese cake noodles with shrimp in ginger-onion sauce.
Ko actually means "cane," as in sugar cane in Hawaiian, and it represents the ethnic cuisines from the various sugar-plantation "camps," or old-time neighborhoods, ranging from Japanese to Puerto Ricans who worked in the fields here.
Ko at a glance:
Hours: Open daily for lunch from noon to 3 p.m.; and dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Ambience: Casual al fresco or "outdoor" dining by the pool.
Keiki friendly: Kids 5 and younger eat free at Ko, Polo Beach Club and Kea Lani Restaurant when ordering off keiki menu and accompanied by an adult.
For kamaaina: Those with Hawaii drivers licenses will get 25 percent off food and beverage.
Romance packages: Book one of the private cabanas for a special dinner and create fond memories of the candlelit kind.
For reservations: Call 875-4100.
Only Ko's recipes aren't how grandma made it back at Nashiwa Camp. They are gourmet with fun and unexpected twists on the presentations. When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Maui, eat what the locals eat, but make sure it's prepared by the expert chefs from Ko.
Now, those with a Hawaii driver's license get 25 percent off both food and beverage. That's right, food and beverage, for both lunch and dinner.
"People are blown away by the fact that we are offering a full 25 percent kamaaina discount in Ko," says the Pete Sylvester, the Fairmont's director of food and beverage. "I seriously want to start photographing the looks on people's faces when I tell them -because it is that funny. I call it 'the Discount Face.' "
So bring your family and come check it out and have a great time. We certainly did on a recent visit. It was love at first bite with an appetizer of miso-glazed tiger prawns with buckwheat soba noodles arranged in pinwheels with ocean salad. You wrap your own in butter lettuce leaves and dip in sauce, reminiscent of Manoa lettuce wraps at Cafe O'Lei. Only these will tempt with gourmet Japanese flavors.
Lift your elegant chopsticks and enjoy the ambience. Centerpieces are small moss-and- rock gardens, Sylvester had made by a very cool local florist named Tish Brook from Creative Botanicals.
The crispy calamari with the Korean ko chu jang sauce is spicy and the masago (aka Icelandic caviar) gives it crunchy pops of seafood goodness.
We also savored the Mauka Harvest salad packed with pohole fern shoots, hearts of palm, Kula baby lettuce with macadamia nuts and passion-fruit vinaigrette. These three dishes were plenty to share between two people. It was all exceptionally fresh and sustainable, too.
"A high percentage of our wines that we feature at Ko are sustainable and organically farmed," Sylvester says. "Approximately 40 percent of the menu is sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic."
In fact, Ko's major focus is sustainability and it just received notice it will receive the "Green Business Program" recognition from the State of Hawaii. Part of why it is being honored is because of its cuisine, procured from many farms.
Sea asparagus comes from Kahuku, sweet corn from Kula, watercress from Oahu's Sumida Farms. The green papaya is grown right on the hotel grounds. The produce list is extensive.
The Honua Menu is sustainable and it may be ordered a la carte or as a three-course meal. It begins with the above-mentioned Mauka Harvest salad, followed by makai catch, which "depends on season, weather and luck of the fishermen." The preparations include grilled with miso butter, wok seared with black bean sauce or Haole-style with lemon-herb butter. Dessert is Waialua Estate baked chocolate custard.
Besides sustainable foods and wines, the cucumber-and-pomegranate mojitos and the saketinis are mixed and muddled fresh daily by bartenders.
Got kids 5 and younger? Ko is keiki friendly. It doesn't matter whether you are a visitor or a local for them to dine for free. There's a fish-shaped pizza, chopsticks are secured with cute animals and foods are served in fun bento boxes.
"Twenty-five percent off the bill, free parking and a meal on a beautiful outdoor terrace. Why wouldn't you come down and check it out?" asks Sylvester.