I eyed the buttery escargot on my spoon like a kid who just took a dare to eat a bug. It looked innocent enough, like a well-cooked mushroom soaking in a warm bath of garlic and butter. I reminded myself that people have been eating snails for centuries, and I would be doing the dining gods a great disservice if I did not at least try this popular French delicacy. I took two deep breaths and put the whole thing in my mouth. As I chewed the firm morsel, every bite burst with guilty, buttery flavors far from what I expected from a mollusk. I exhaled a sigh of relief—escargot is not so bad. You mean you haven’t tried it yet?
The escargot was my first stop on a trip around world cuisine that I experienced at Lahaina Grill.
The restaurant touts itself as “New American cuisine,” which (and I had to look it up) is a term for upscale, contemporary cooking that combines flavors from America’s melting pot of ethnicities. It lives up to that definition: the owner/chef is Swiss, the executive chef is Mexican, the general manager got her start with T.G.I. Friday’s and the original menu was modeled after famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter.
The décor is nothing short of eclectic. With cream-colored walls and eggshell-blue trim reminiscent of a country cottage, Ikea-like glass lamps emitting subdued, contemporary lighting and shockingly colorful floral paintings by Maui artist Jan Kasprzycki hanging on the walls, the unusual mix of colors and genres gives the impression that someone gave Mozart a paintbrush and Picasso a piano.
Our next stop on the jet-set menu felt like it should be paired with margaritas. The chile relleno placed at our table’s center was a plump poblano pepper the size of a ballpark hotdog and fried to a perfect golden brown. The pepper sat beautifully on a heap of fresh corn kernels and a tomato and vinegar puree. I am quite partial to chile relleno and have sampled every variation of the Mexican staple, which literally means “stuffed pepper.” Lahaina Grill’s version has an island twist: it’s not only stuffed with melted cheese, but with pureed prawns and scallops as well. The delicate stuffing is moist and tastes more like breading than seafood. While devouring the pepper up to the stem, my pallet was not quite prepared for the hit of heat that came at the end; it was like the poblano’s gangsta cousin taking the last punch in a fight. It’s a nice surprise for this spicy-food lover and I concede that it might be the best chile relleno this side of the Rio Grande, which is saying something given my Texas roots.
For the entrée, I ordered the kalua duck. As I pierced the fowl leg with my fork, the meat fell apart in long, juicy strips, much like any Mauian would recognize in a pulled-pork sandwich. The usually gamey dish has the soft, smoky flavor of roasted pig. Duck confit is a special dish because generally it is made using a centuries-old process of preservation that involves curing a piece of duck leg in salt and then poaching it in its own fat. After marinating for up to 36 hours, the duck is slowly cooked at a low temperature from 90 minutes to 10 hours until it is meltingly tender. More so than any filet mignon could hope to be.
We ended our meal with the dessert sampler. A quatro of Crème Brule, berry pie, flourless chocolate cake and a vintage Hawaiian chocolate cake called Road to Hana, Maui. While all four are exceptional, only one made my toes curl. Starting with a soft chocolate cake base, the Road to Hana is paved with a chocolate and sour cream mousse, intertwined with generous chunks of caramel macadamia nuts. Topped with a silky chocolate ganache, this chocoholic indulgence could very well be the best desert I have had on Maui.
If you’re looking to break away from the Pacific Rim dishes that dominate Maui’s restaurants, take a trip around the world at Lahaina Grill by sampling local products prepared with a foreign flair. MTW