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Aloha is a main ingredient at Mama’s Fish House restaurant

The Polynesian Black Pearl, with lilikoi chocolate mousse, is served in a pastry seashell. AYA GANZ photo

Review the most famous restaurant on Maui?! Dine in a coconut grove next to the sea and feast my eyes on the glorious north shore surf in one of the most revered, best loved, family-owned dining spots on island? Yes please and thank you, I’d just love to!

Doris and Floyd Christenson, avid sailors of the South Pacific back in the 1960s, discovered the profound nature of food fresh from the sea and islands. They dreamed of opening a restaurant somewhere, someday. Lucky for us, they decided on Maui. Mama’s Fish House came to be in 1973. It is one of a kind. I was invited by Karen Christenson, daughter of Doris and Floyd, to experience the dream that is Mama’s Fish House. From the gracious attention I received at my table, to a behind the scenes look into the kitchen, where the magic comes alive.

Mama’s Fish House is elegant, yet cozy. The decor is classic Polynesian; rich with wood and charm, relaxed and inviting. The view and breeze are intoxicating.

Nestled in a cove just outside Paia town for over 45 years, Mama’s fish house supports the Maui community. From farm to table and sea to table, Executive Chef Perry Bateman, who started at Mama’s in 2000 when he was 19, oversees a team of more than 400 people! Says Chef Perry, “We are representing so many. There’s a lot of families that depend on the success of this restaurant. We’re buying ingredients from all the Hawaiian islands. It’s a team effort.” Mama’s Fish House is literally a village, all brought together under one hale. And what started out as a neighborhood restaurant has drawn in people from around the world.

“What inspires all of us, is seeing all the people who are a part of the experience.” Chef Perry reminded me that while writing this piece, I, too, was a part of it, “From the Auntie that sends us the tea leaves, to the Uncle that makes the custom dining plates,” every aspect of Mama’s Fish House is filled with meaning, and importance. Hoping to leave the guests with a lasting experience, Chef Perry tells me, “In this kitchen, we really stand by respect and aloha. It’s our secret ingredient . . . well, it’s not really a secret,” he says with a smile, “it’s our main ingredient. As long as you have respect and aloha for what you do, then there is harmony . . . no matter how much pressure there is, there is composure. We want people to feel nourished and happy. We want our staff to be happy. Then if the staff is happy, the food is happy.” I agree with this philosophy; food takes on the love and energy we put into it.

Everything at Mama’s is made fresh to order. Chef Perry explained, ” It’s all about consistency, fresh ingredients and a staff that has the integrity to work together and put nothing but love in everything they do . . . we make all our stocks and soups from scratch. That’s the fun part.”

As we continue on from the kitchen, we walk just behind the bustle of the pots, pans and aromatic sizzle and I can see a timeline of growth; from a small restaurant to a larger venue that has expanded just enough to keep up with its insatiable fans, while maintaining its intimate atmosphere and the flawless quality of its food and attention. Perry adds, “We go through 120 pounds of local honey a day for our bread. A good day for me is all our fishermen and farmers being able to supply everything we need.” That’s no small order!

I sat down to eat and was given a lei! I was then served Mama’s Ahi Tahitian. With a sauce of coconut and lime, this light, creamy, subtle, pleasing dish was served in a open coconut shell. Nothing speaks of the islands more than the taste and the look of this starter! The fish was tender, flavorful, cool and refreshing. To accompany this raw delight, were fresh-made Wailuku taro chips that were salted and light as a feather.

Next, I had the Big Island ali’i mushrooms with goat cheese drizzled with a very rare olive oil that is grown in Kula. These little pink flamingo, oyster-type mushrooms were named for the King! The flavor was slightly woody, with just the perfect amount of chew. I was beginning to feel my inner queendom . . . I wanted more! To finish the starters, I had the Kula Baby Romaine salad, served with an 18-year-old balsamic vinegar and Maui olive oil. These delicate, petite greens are the perfect palate cleanser.

For my entree, I had the mahi mahi, uku, and ahi in panang curry. I loved that the fisherman who brought in my fish fresh that morning are named on the menu. I have had curries around the world and I have to say this may be the best I have ever eaten. Served over rice, a medley of seasonal vegetables accompanies the fish in this bold, rich curry dish. I added to that, a side of lobster tail! Go big right? The curry is served with a trio of sauces which take the dish to another level. Toasted coconut, minted banana, sambal and mango chutney, further embellish and enhance these flavors.

For the finale, I went with the Polynesian Black Pearl, with lilikoi chocolate mousse, served in a pastry seashell. The most stunningly delicious piece of art I’ve ever eaten. The perfect ending to a meal I will never forget.

* Mama’s Fish House, 799 Poho Place, Paia. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Book a table at mamasfishhouse.com or call (808) 579-8488.