From the moment you step foot into the Grand Wailea’s Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, you’re in for an exotic treat. Built like a Hollywood set, the restaurant is a series of small dining rooms connected by hallways that stretch over a fish-filled lagoon. All of it is thatched hut-style. Carved tikis greet you at the door and palm trees surround the property. Servers wear mu’u mu’u and tropical prints, and the menu itself is a carved and woven work of art.
Then there are the drinks. The bar offers a slew of tropical rum drinks like the Pirate’s Treasure and Pele’s Revenge. My drink came served in a coconut. The Big Kahuna drink menu outlines beverages that are “more than enough for one and big enough to share for two.” Those drinks are served in bowls, a tradition in tiki cocktail culture. Having multiple members of your party imbibe with multiple straws stuck in a stemmed glass the size of salad bowl is always festive.
Yet the man behind the scenes hardly seems exotic. Chef Mike Lofaro is slight in frame, has fair skin and blue eyes, but don’t let that fool you. The man can cook some of the most spectacular and gorgeous food you will ever put in your mouth. Classically educated at the Culinary Institute of America, Lofaro worked at Humu a few years ago, but took a hiatus to build canoes. Last year he returned to Humu, taking over as Executive Chef when Isaac Bancaco took the top chef’s job at Pineapple Grill.
“My first job was at the age of 14 peeling shrimp and debearding mussels all day at a place called Deadeye Dicks on Block Island back east,” says Lofaro. “It’s good to hit the reset button if you can. I just wanted to take a step back and try something different for a change, and that made me realize how much I belong in a kitchen.”
He recently revamped the menu at Humu, where customers get to pick their lobster–Hawaiian Spiny (sometimes caught offshore by local fishermen) and Kona Maine–from the lagoon. (There’s a Lobster Lovers Happy Hour 5:30-6:30pm, where you get half-off any lobster entree; there’s also a kama’aina discount of buy one entree, get one half off.) The menu now features Korean style fried chicken, Kampachi poke, ahi tartare and seared ahi.
Salads like the one with elegant shaved fennel and watercress or the Asian pear with Kula butter lettuce are refreshing starters. I opted for the Surfing Goat cheese and melon salad, which included perfect chunks of juicy watermelon dropped in peppery arugula and savory prosciutto. Dressing was a crackling, succulent red wine gastrique. From the raw bar, the Kampachi is spectacular in flavor and texture and includes a surprising smoked ponzu broth.
“I love the simplicity of the Kampachi poke,” says Lofaro. “You can tear your hair out trying to create something that tastes refined and elegant and then you make a dish like that and realize it only takes four ingredients and your intelligence.”
The ahi tartar is seasoned with toasted cumin that comes out as a smoky component among the green herbs that top it. Lofaro says spices are fundamental to his menu.
“Ask any of my guys, I love working with spices,” he says. “I have spices hidden in a lot of our dishes. It adds more depth and profile. Using them so they add to the dish and don’t take over is the key.”
Lofaro has worked that elegance into dishes like lamb crusted with brioch and lemongrass, the hoisin and pear short rib and all the fresh fish preparations. Every ingredient needs to be there.
But for me, the Seared Ahi Loin rose above the rest. It’s a filet of seared ahi stacked on top of a supple dumpling of foie gras. This is stacked on mushrooms and snow peas and all gently floating in a Pho poured carefully around it. The dumpling on its own is amazing–the flavor of the foie gras wonderfully captured in the glossy dumpling dough that melts in your mouth. Coupled with the seared ahi and a crunch here and there of snow peas sets your taste buds alight.
“Ahi and foie gras has always been a favorite pair of mine,” says Lofaro. “Michael Mina was known for his ahi/foie tower with mushrooms and red wine at Aqua back in the day. I always loved the combo and plated about 20,000 of them in my time there. It was just one of those combos that always stuck with me. I love pho and thought it would work great with foie, so we tried it. The dish was originally going to be a foie gras app with the pho broth and then it just grew from there.”
Last year, officials reportedly approved plans for the Grand Wailea to expand a new wing of rooms over Humu’s current location. But resort officials now say they’ve scratched that idea. That gives Lofaro time for more creativity.
“Asian cuisine is by far the most difficult style of cooking for me to create and execute and I was never any good at it,” he says. “Being out of my comfort zone almost all the time when creating for Humu is a challenge I enjoy. Developing a weakness into my strength, I guess.”
3850 Wailea Alanui Dr.
Pau Hana Happy Hour
5-6pm, half off “On the Rocks” well drinks, house wine by-the-glass and domestic beers
Ono Ono Happy Hour
5:30-6:30pm, half off any hand-caught fresh lobster entrée (based on availability)
Buy one dinner entree, get second entree half off of equal or lesser value. Each person must have valid Hawaii ID.