Monday, May 4, 2015

Destination Maui: Feast at Lele

While I can't speak to the authenticity for native Hawaiians of any of the luaus on Maui, I can say that the luau has become a tradition for Hawaiian tourists. As with all such tourist traps, no matter how noble the origins, luaus have generally become more like Medieval Times--entertainment for kids while the parents get too drunk on watered-down piƱa coladas--rather than anywhere an adult would actually want to be.

Because of these pitfalls, I relished that I had no children to amuse or their picky appetites to satiate. For my luau experience, I traded picnic tables for private white tablecloths, a buffet for sixteen courses, and arts and crafts demonstrations for live music. The Feast at Lele in Lahaina is about 20-40% more expensive than the other luaus on Maui. Its focus on fine food, highlighting dishes from the four regions of Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa, with accompanying performances, catered to those who were tired of teriyaki chicken and poi served out of steam tables. There were few kids at this luau, and you could stay seated comfortably while the attentive and friendly waiters made sure that you had whatever luxury you needed.

The dishes are divided into regional specialties highlighting four Polynesian areas. Pictured above are the famous locals, pohole salad and kalua pork. The pork was among the most succulent roast pig I've ever had, carnitas and barbecue pulled pork included. As the sun set, the dishes were too dark to photograph and I refused to intrude on the romantic atmosphere with flash photos. Among some of the other dishes were locally-caught coconut fish, baked scallops, passionfruit shrimp, grilled squid and duck salad. Much of the food may have been too exotic for all but the most adventurous or prodigious kids' palates. Almost all dishes had some sweet component, such as a fruit glaze or sauce. Yet nothing was overwhelmingly sweet. Each of the sixteen dishes could have stood on its own on a menu, far from the lukewarm concoctions spooned out of steel chafers.

Gentle island tunes set the scene for an amazing sunset. Lahaina, on the west coast of Maui, receives very little rain so the outdoor venue was ideal. All the luaus start about an hour before sunset and are located to take advantage of the gorgeous oceanside views. I felt especially thankful that I could enjoy such a magnificent scene free from the scampering and noise of little children.

As required for any luau, there were hula and other Polynesian dances. The performances were increasingly energetic, culminating in a thrilling fire knife dance. By the time the fire dancer brought out the flaming torch, he had to allow enough clearance between the flames and the guests, who gave off alcoholic fumes from too many of the delicious tropical drinks.

As thankful as I was to be able to enjoy a luau the way I wanted, I recognize that Hawaii holds magic for everyone, whatever their circumstances. Luau, as feasts or parties, are family affairs at heart. Whether a big family vacation, a romantic getaway, or something in between, you can find your own aloha whatever you decide to do.

Make sure to book your tickets early. The Feast at Lele sells out early and never at a discount, which should indicate to you its popularity despite its premium price.

Feast at Lele

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Destination Maui: 808 Grindz Cafe

Don't let the name deter you. Yes, 808 Grindz Cafe sounds like the concession stand attached to a community-run skate park, but the breakfast surpasses anything you'd find on the mainland. Open only for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant is off the beaten tourist path. Nestled away from street view in an unassuming shopping center, nothing about the exterior of the restaurant would attract the skeptical traveler. Note that the photo above was taken from the balcony of my hotel, not the restaurant, the interior of which you'd find in any coffee shop in the country.

Time seems to run at a different pace in Hawaii. Here especially, the waitstaff were friendly and laid back, not at all perturbed by the three unbussed tables despite several waiting parties standing outside. Perhaps the slow service is a throwback, much like their website, decorated by spinning and sparkling gifs. More likely, those who run 808 Grindz simply know that this place survives on the strength of its food and word-of-mouth alone, even though this Lahaina location has only been open for less than a year.

Come for the macadamia nut pancakes. Ask for the nuts in the pancakes and on top as well. Indulge in the sweet cream mac-nilla sauce. It isn't as cloying as you might expect. The pancakes are light and fluffy, even after sitting in a takeout container for close to half an hour before consumption. Get at least a full stack. You won't be able to get enough...

...unless you order the rainbow French toast as well. The bread itself is sweet and chewy, before being dusted in a cinnamon-vanilla mixture set loose on the griddle. Again, get the sauce on top and skip the syrup or powdered sugar.

Besides the sweet, also try some of the savory dishes. We ordered the crab cakes, which came with a generous portion of crab meat, and the fried rice moco. The loco moco here is a bit sweeter than the other ones I had; the sauce is more similar to a teriyaki.

If you're in Maui on vacation, set aside a leisurely morning for breakfast at 808 Grindz. Get away from the glitz of the beach resorts and opt for the better food at an even better price. These days, local gems like these don't stay secret, so expect a modest wait. But hey, you're in Hawaii. What's the rush, brah?

808 Grindz Cafe

Friday, August 15, 2014

Destination New Haven: Evolution of Clam Pizza

Fresh tomato and white clam pizzas from Pepe's

I was recently roped into a recruiting trip to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Having never been, I did some research on the one distinctive aspect of New Haven cuisine that the area is renowned for--pizza, or "apizza" as it is sometimes referred to locally.

New Haven is home to the Big Three pizza joints. Sally's Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana (affectionately referred to as Pepe's) are within blocks of each other, not too far from Yale's campus. Modern Apizza is off on its own, but still close to school. My original plan was to taste test at least two of the Big Three, but Modern was under renovation and Sally's was closed on the days I was in town. Instead, I pivoted to a comparison between the oldest, Pepe's, and one of the new kids on the block, Bar.


Even on a Monday night at 9:30 when school is out, there was still a line out the door at Pepe's. Perhaps because Sally's is closed on that day, the wait may have been longer than normal, but I imagine any weekend would bring huge crowds to the inventor of the white clam pizza. The brick coal oven is the most dominant presence in the restaurant. Staffed by cooks with enormously long pizza peels, the kitchen was white and looked a bit sterile. We ordered a forgettable beer and a Foxon Park White Birch Soda, another main draw. All of the Big Three serve this Connecticut soda. Think refreshing spearmint sarsaparilla.

Of course we ordered the white clam pizza, a combination of romano cheese, littleneck clams, oregano and garlic. The clams were unfortunately a bit sparse for the $12 twelve-inch pizza. While solid, the clam pizza's flavor was almost completely dominated by garlic. My favorite aspect was actually the chewiness of the crust. In addition, we ordered the fresh tomato pie, a seasonal pizza topped with locally grown tomatoes. This tomatoes were deliciously sweet, a perfectly serviceable pizza.


Even though I say "new," Bar has been open since 1996, which, in the restaurant business, is long enough to develop an impressive pedigree. But compared to the Big Three, from the 1920s and 1930s, Bar was the hip, youngster. Even though it is relatively new, Connecticut food writer Amy Kundrat thought to include it in her Definitive Guide to New Haven Pizza, which was good enough to bring here.

That stack of wood is just for show. This oven burns natural gas, unlike the coal and oil ovens of the Big Three. Unlike the other pizza places, Bar also brews its own beer and becomes a nightclub at night. The clientele are younger and probably the kind of people that the clientele at the Big Three complain about. Yet Bar doesn't detour too far from its main purpose. The only food on the menu is pizza and one salad.

As a benchmark, we got the white clam pizza ($18.75). I was aware that Bar is famous for its mashed potatoes topping, but since it best accompanies a white pie and I couldn't stomach another white, I stuck with the white clam and ordered a red pizza with sausage, mushrooms and basil. While the ingredients in the clam pizza were essentially the same as the one from Pepe's, the key game-changer is that the clam pizza at Bar came with a wedge of lemon. The squeeze of citrus brought the seafood to life and cut through the grease and garlic. Stylewise, the pizza also featured an ultra thin crust, which could be a plus if you don't want to feel weighed down.


For me, Pepe's stood for the traditional. Little has changed over the years, though I believe Sally's has struck even closer to its roots. Bar, with its bare brick industrial styling, looked modern, and I daresay even more modern than Modern Apizza. Between Pepe's and Bar, I'd choose Bar, but I will say that Pepe's is worth a trip to get an idea of Bar's lineage. I suppose the true conclusion is to make sure you're in town long enough to eat at each of them.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
(203) 865-5762

254 Crown Street
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 785-1111