It’s not often that I get to say we’ve imported a restaurant from the Mainland and improved its concept. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that Hyatt Maui’s Japengo invested the time to get it right, so much so I think they’ve upgraded the product. Not that Japengo needed an upgrade—the Hyatt La Jolla California’s version is considered one of San Diego’s top restaurants—but the Maui version (which is offering 15 percent off for all kama‘aina) is staking its own claim.
Part of what makes Japengo special is the team: Executive Chef Matt Smith, Chef Gevin Utrillo and sushi chef David “Jay” Ledee love what they do and it shows. The front of the house staff guided by food and beverage director Peter Donnelly and managers Nate Rhodes and Christine Gillis are ready and waiting to escort you through the menu.
Japengo is nearly two restaurants in one. Occupying the former Cascades location, the restaurant closed down for eight months to rebuild, redesign and rethink the whole concept. Seating options abound: casual and elegant by the bar, an open-air lanai that gives way to views of Lahaina town and the ocean, outdoor garden seating near the front of the restaurant and a chic, enclosed, air conditioned sushi bar area. I indulged in the air conditioning this time, but next time it will have to be ocean views—the sunset here is off the hook.
The Asian aesthetic is carefully cultivated in dark woods, river rock attributes, stone flooring, black leathers and modern “organic” designs (check out the “mushrooms” hanging over the bar). And the look carries through to the dishes and table settings: muted brown pottery, river rock chopstick rests and ivory linens.
Two great cuisines reside side by side on the menu: sushi and sashimi and Asian fusion. Both stand up beautifully on their own, but I’d recommend combining them into a mouth-watering Saimese twin. Under the guidance of Chef Jay, I started with sashimi and sushi paired with some of Japengo’s cleverly named cocktails. The moriawase is a work of art, a platter laden with chef picks like Scottish salmon, Spanish mackerel, mirugai (clam) and madai (king snapper).
Japengo features fresh wasabi root from the Big Island; you grate it Japanese-style against a shark skin board and “sweep” off the spoils with a little bamboo brush. Fresh wasabi doesn’t have the kick that the green blob does and is much more subtle.
Garnishes of daikon shaped into little nests, shiso leaf here and there and a whole fish posed with its edible flesh ready for the plucking make the platter a true experience for the senses. On my visit, the chef paired the moriawase with the rappongi fling. The cooling cucumber, ginger ale and dry lime and sake linger on the palate, balancing the fish flavor.
The 50/50 roll is a California roll on the inside with kanpachi, Scottish salmon and lemons sliced and layered over the top. The lemons are a treat to eat, whole skin and all. It’s not often you can devour them this way, and they have a brilliant effect. Chef Jay says he uses Scottish salmon because of its distinct, exquisite flavor. The big roll is Japengo’s version of shrimp tempura, accented with tobanjan, a spicy bean condiment that I’m now seeking in Asian markets for my pantry. These rolls were accompanied by the tengu fizz, a passion fruit, lime juice, vodka and basil cocktail, and the Shanghai Heat, a Sauza and spicy jalapeno cilantro drink.
The starter menu has a dish called compressed watermelon and hamachi mosaic, a concept cuisine developed by Chef Utrillo using watermelon that has been pressed in cryovac until it’s firm and dense but still juicy. The dish is light and delicate, the sweet of the watermelon against the gentle white hamachi flesh drawn together over Chef Jay’s secret recipe ponzu sauce. Follow up with the perfectly small kumomoto oysters farmed in the Pacific Northwest for another raw delight; they pop in the mouth and slide down so easily, I prefer them to their larger counterpart.
One dish that made the cut from La Jolla’s Japengo to Maui is the curry-dusted calamari, a salad, noodle dish and fried concoction wrapped into one. Calamari is soaked in buttermilk and dredged in wondra flour then fried and seasoned with salt and curry powder. These tasty morsels are dropped on top of a potato-starch noodle called harusame, with ocean salad, julienned veggies, halved grapes and a wonderful dressing that finishes it off.
On the specialties menu grilled mahi mahi comes in a tall stack, a formed bed of forbidden rice, topped with blanched tatsoi, an Okinawan green reminiscent of a marriage of spinach and arugula, tossed in a tahini dressing and peppered with crispy bits of pancetta crowned with a gorgeous portion of grilled mahi and topped with a grilled lemon. I’m also enamored by the large wide bowl it’s served in, both good-looking and utilitarian at the same time.
The Kurobuta pork is also a treat, served on glass noodles with a menagerie of vegetables celebrated in hoisin sauce. Executive Chef Smith explains the mechanics behind the pig: “Snake River Farms is one of the only brands offering 100 percent purebred Berkshire breed pork, ensuring a consistently exquisite eating experience. Often referred to as Kurobuta, it has been celebrated in Japan and around the world for many reasons, but especially for its marbling and flavor, which are its most distinctive characteristics. American Kurobuta Pork is lean, with small, fine streaks of marbling that make each cut sweet, tender and juicy.”
You’re probably too full for dessert just reading this, but the chocolate profiteroles with hazelnut gelato, caramel sauce and mac nut brittle are worth saving room for. Kona coffee ganache cake, Molokai sweet potato cheesecake, mochi ice cream and coconut creme brulee also beg to be sampled. And the menu emphasizes local products throughout, including Alii Kula Lavender, Maui Prime, Markea Prawns, Kula Farms and many more, adding to the location’s unique Maui appeal.