Presentation, Freshness, and Flavor
Tasting Chef Niko’s latest additions to Castaway Cafe
When you think of a great dining experience there are so many factors that can come into play. I headed to Castaway Cafe for a casual Sunday sunset meal and I got so much more than I bargained for in the best way. Chef Niko is fairly new here, coming up on one year soon. His main strategy at the Castaway has been to build a super team to get to quality food.
“That is really what I learned in culinary school,” says Nikolaus De La Riva, chef at Castaway Cafe. “A dish can be basic but it needs to be super flavorful and plated nice and pretty. When I took over we were just putting stuff together with no love to it. I had to come in here and get all the cooks together for a meeting and say, ‘Look, my number one concern, the number one thing I want to focus on is a good team, a great work environment, that is the basis for great food.’
“When you enjoy coming to work, when you enjoy the people that you are working with, it is going to show in the food. When you got people that don’t work well together, they are not going to have pride in what they are doing. I don’t want that here. I want our kitchen to be like a family – we help each other out. That’s what I have learned over the years.”
From the moment I was greeted by the hostess to the moment I left, the staff was gracious and professional, and the service was excellent. I have been dining at Castaway for years. It’s not a fancy-shmancy destination restaurant but it is a solid choice on the West Side to get Ka’anapali views in a casual environment. I love this side of Ka’anapali that still has the old school vibe, no giant pricey parking structure, and modest buildings instead of huge towers. It harkens to our tourism industry of the ‘70s and ‘80s when this area was right next to the old airport on the beach… A simpler time.
This doesn’t mean simple food; the dishes speak for themselves. Chef Niko’s pride has spilled over into presentation, freshness, and flavor. The tables and chairs are all new, and the dining room and bar have a cheerfulness I didn’t appreciate before. The Cohn Group bought the restaurant a few years back from owner Gary Bush, and little by little they have been making tweaks, like hiring Chef Niko.
I tried the seafood platter, one of his menu additions: a decadent collection of fried seafood, succulent chunks of tempura Mahi, coconut shrimp, and long slender strips of breaded calamari. They were all so good I couldn’t choose a favorite. The liliko‘i dipping sauce might have been the star there, I wanted to dredge everything in it.
“I was going for more tropical, more seafood with the items I have added,” says Chef Niko. “That is why I added the seafood platter. I wanted more color, more vibrance in the plating. We are so close to the ocean. More fresh dishes and made on Maui. I had to roll with the flow we already have going here on Maui and certain concepts I couldn’t go too far off. We kept all of our weekly night specials, that is what people love about Castaway Cafe. We have been doing that for years and I didn’t want to disrupt too much. So I have just slowly been making changes. Better quality of food, better presentation.”
Their nightly specials still reign supreme: Sundays are $24.95 BBQ Baby Back Ribs Night, Mondays offer a $17.95 half-pound burger and brew, Tuesdays are their legendary two for one pasta night, Wednesday is Date Night with dinner for two and a bottle of wine for $49.95, Thursday Taco & Tunes Night features three blackened tacos and live music, Friday Weekend Wine Down gives half-off select bottles of wine, and Saturday night is Prime Rib Night with $24.95 8-ounce and $29.95 12-ounce specials.
“For pasta night I changed the lasagne recipe a bit, and I have had nothing but great feedback,” says Chef Niko. “I worked at a few Italian restaurants so I have had the pleasure of making a few good lasagnes along the way. On pasta night you buy one pasta, you get one free, so that is a huge deal. We have a lot of families here on vacation that come in.”
Niko visits his customers to check in, a nice touch here. He lets me know the herbed mashed potatoes are a new addition to the menu, and we enjoyed them thoroughly with the ribeye which came perfectly roasted medium rare and seasoned with a mushroom cream sauce to die for and a spark of veggies on the side. It was an extraordinary dish that I would come again for. Another dish that we devoured was the ahi poke stack – his addition of guacamole was a nice touch, and it was plated beautifully.
“In the little time I have been here I definitely have noticed so many people from so many different places in the world,” says Chef Niko. “They all bring along with them their way of eating for sure. I’m personally from San Diego, California. Living so close to the border, Mexican food definitely has had an influence on me and my cooking. My very first recipe I learned was how to make guacamole, so in my kitchen I must have guacamole, salsa, tacos, tortillas, cilantro, beans, jalapenos, nachos, and pico de gallo. Although people think caesar dressing is Italian it was actually invented in Tijuana by a guy named Caesar! Some of our popular menu items are huevos rancheros, breakfast burrito, mini tostada, and nachos.”
The nachos and caesar salad will have to wait until the next time. I just didn’t have room! I appreciated the gorgeous sunset that dropped down behind Moloka‘i and look forward to my next trip to this west side Ka’anapali gem.
“One of my goals here: Get the average joe, the average person, in here to enjoy a great meal at a reasonable price,” says Niko. “Coming on vacation you are spending a lot of money as it is. If they find a spot that is not too expensive and the meal is great they are coming back. Then they will start talking to other guests while they are here. Just good quality food for the average person has been my intention.”
Restaurant Review By Jen Russo
45 Kai Ala Drive, Lahaina
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
7:30am-9pm; Happy Hour 3-6pm