At the north end of Front Street in Lahaina is Mala, a cozy tapas-style restaurant that offers its loyal crowd wonderful flavors and a stunning view to match. Named after the wharf it overlooks, Mala shies away from Lahaina Town’s tourist traffic and has grown to be a solid local favorite. Chef Mark Ellman of Maui Tacos and Penne Pasta fame is widely considered a pioneer of Hawaiian cuisine. For this lively ocean tavern, Ellman created a menu that showcases good, health-conscious food at modest prices.
Having dined at the restaurant on a couple occasions, I’ve always been pleased by the quick and attentive staff and prime open-air seating. Browsing the menu the first time, I was half smitten, half skeptical, but just until we were brought the complimentary tortilla chips with edamame guacamole. The cool, creamy and surprisingly avocado-less concoction was an automatic pleaser and paired perfectly well with extra spicy salsa. The grilled pita bread swiftly diminished my other doubts. Soft and buttery, it melted with a balanced medley of hummus, raita yogurt, babaganoush and fried chick peas with feta cheese.
The menu offered more tasty vegetarian fare. Sugar snap peas prepared in different variations of heat had a fresh crunch and the tomato shitake mushroom on crispy flat bread done with melted mozzarella and basil was plain delicious. While the Caesar salad was in dire need of a flavor tune-up, my taste buds kicked into overdrive for the sweet and tender chicken wings. Prepared with pomegranate, ginger and chili, it ranks at the top of the must-order list; the succulent Manila clams in aromatic ginger black bean sauce run a close second.
The Rolls Royce Kobe beef cheeseburger with caramelized onions and choice of cheddar or Maytag Blue cheese sounds like a definite test drive. Equally tempting were the adult macaroni and cheese with rigatoni, mushroom cream and mozzarella, and the baby back ribs served over spicy edamame with mashed potatoes. But the last time I checked, gluttony is still frowned upon by society, so I’ll have to save that ride for the next time.
The restaurant highlights a well-rounded wine list that includes California’s Conundrum—a full-bodied tropical explosion of pineapple, peaches, kiwi with a hint of vanilla and and Naia Verdejo, a sweet Spanish chardonnay with citrus overtones. Both are cool choices for Maui’s sweltering summer.
To close the feast, it was a tough choice between the chocolate souffle and house gelatos. But in the end, we opted for the chef’s signature dessert, Carmen Miranda. White chocolate toffee macadamia nut ice cream with a sweet soiree of glazed strawberries, baby coconuts, blackberries, pineapple and kiwi, it’s a delightful farewell to this communal affair. MTW