Mama’s Fish House is the quintessential Maui dining experience. So it was almost embarrasing to admit I’d never had more than cocktails and pupus here.
From the moment you turn off Hana Highway at their landmark boat and roll down their seaside driveway, your senses are stimulated. The strip of Kuau land the restaurant and inn occupy is geologically well-endowed, with its own private beach and coconut grove; guests are invited to stroll at their leisure and take photos. When you check in with the hostess behind the banyan tree archway the excitement is palpable and the smells are already fantastic.
The retro-Polynesian charm is genuine. Owners Floyd and Doris Christenson fell in love with the South Pacific and have been traveling throughout the region for many years. The vintage tablecloths, the old architecture, the antiques and music all harken back to a time that’s as gently intoxicating as it is difficult to capture. I’ve never seen as many vintage aloha prints in one room as I did on the restaurant servers. To ensure you get to take advantage of their best seats and service make reservations, but they alsodo their best to accommodate walk-ins.)
Each meal is orchestrated with finesse and precision. It begins with fish guru Mike Pascher, who works with the fishermen bringing in catches that appear with their names on the menu. “If you’re eating closed-season fish, it’s coming from imports,” says Pascher. “You won’t see that here at Mama’s.” Four master cutters get to work on the fish before handing it off to Executive Chef Perry Bateman and his team of sous chefs, Harold Symonds, Tom Sawatsanthia and Kapuni Tupua. Chef Perry has a mantra for them: “Tasting is essential. Everyone taste, communicate and work in harmony!”
That sense of harmony shines through on the menu, which melds Tahitian and Polynesian-inspired dishes with fresh Maui ingredients. The Christensons’ have been intensely and solely focused on Mama’s since the doors opened in 1973 and that continues to this day. They often dine in their restaurant, meaning you still get glimpses of Mama in her element.
The stuffed mahi mahi is a signature dish and a must-try. (I recently visited Yelp.com to reminisce my Mama’s mahi experience with others and found that people all over the world love this dish.) Mahi baked to perfection with a stuffing of lobster, crab and aromatic Maui onion, served with grilled corn, lobster in the shell, asparagus and rice pilaf. I ordered a side of poi ; it was incredibly fresh, its made here.
The fresh raw fish starters are another can’t-miss option; ono in coconut milk is served in the coconut shell, poisson cru style. It’s a direct and delicious reminder that the Polynesians are foodies.
Every meal starts with complementary warm fresh-baked honey wheat bread and an elegant soup tasting served in a glazed ceramic cup. The lobster guacamole is a personal favorite; the lobster is incredible atop the quac and comes served with sweet potato crisps that I kept snacking on throughout my meal.
Their crab cakes are also fantastic. The macadamia highlights the irresistible texture of the fresh crab meat seasoned and lightly fried, and the housemade relish adds lightness. There are a few items not on the menu so listen to your server, and don’t shy away from trying these exotic specialties. I tried the kama, or fish collar, deep fried and served with dipping sauce and cucumber namasu. The tender fish chunks, derived from the cheeks, are prized for flavor.
With so many amazing options, it’s hard to hold out for dessert. Every options screams out to be tried, so much so you could make the trip just for dessert and coffee, but here’s my tip: they make their own ice cream and sorbet, in small batches so the flavors change often. When I last visited the mint cookies-and-cream was so good I wanted to order a pint to take home. The chocolate Kuau pie is a chocoholic’s dream, with a caramel layer in between the rich ganache mousse and cookie crust. Mama’s is most famous for the Polynesian Black Pearl, chocolate mousse served in an elaborate pastry shell. Their creme brulee was featured on the Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate earlier this year.
The experience at Mama’s is just that: a whole body, mind and soul food experience. And for this reviewer, it was well worth the wait.