Maui Food and Dining

Mala Could Make You a (Temporary) Vegetarian

October 26, 2012, 1:31 PM HST
* Updated October 26, 2:49 PM
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Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef, previously working in Portland, Oregon. She offers her blunt assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.

By Vanessa Wolf

The Hummus Quartet was the standout of the meal. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Mala Wailea in the Marriot Resort offers a gorgeous view and a surprising range of excellent vegetarian options…alongside some duds.

Perhaps knowing what to order before venturing in is the key, so allow us to help with the navigation process.

The Quartet of Hummus, Raita, Olives, Babaganoush, Fried Chickpeas, and Feta ($18) was outstanding. The feta cheese mousse was astoundingly rich – pace yourself! – and truly unique. The mousse was the standout of the excellent plate, preceding the two meals. It is fresh, with a VERY sour finish that makes you pucker…in a good way.

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The dips are served with pita bread and flax seed lavosh. The raita was garlicky where the babaganoush was light and cooling. The hummus was traditional, but satisfying, and the quartet could have easily been a meal unto itself.

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The menu thoughtfully highlights which items are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free. All in all, one starts to wonder if Chef Mark Ellman has converted to vegetarianism and this menu is the subliminal messaging of his new cause. If so, it’s working.

The crunchy calamari. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Crunchy Calamari with Aioli and Mojo Verdi ($13) arrived quickly and was exceptional. Traditional marinara is dolled up with cilantro pesto and garlic aioli, which it turns out is a perfect combination. The fried lemon slices and basil leaves were unexpectedly edible, and delish. All in all, the dish was a winner.

The Kamuela Tomato and Pea Shoot Salad ($14) was less successful. The pea shoots were light and fresh, although a bit grassy. Typically prepared in stir fry, they were hard to eat and the stringy “arms” stabbed more than a couple diners in the back of the throat on the way down. They look pretty, anyway, if that counts for anything.

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The watermelon in the salad is different, bringing a sweet clean flavor and fun touch. The red tomato was perfect, but sadly the yellow was mealy and inedible.  Perhaps with some adjustment – arugula instead of pea shoots? Check to make sure the tomatoes aren’t overripe? Dial down the quantity and volume of feta? – this could be a great dish.

The Pea Shoot and Watermelon Salad. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings ($9) offer a reasonable portion of six wings. Braised with pomegranate, ginger and chili, they’re…interesting. The overall effect is quite sweet, coupled with a notable mint flavor: kind of like a chicken wing cocktail.

The Crispy Coconut Shrimp ($18) are served with a mango, pineapple, and chili arbol dipping sauce. They are battered and dipped in coconut before frying and the flavor is exactly what you would expect. They’re good, but between the portion and the actual shrimp size, not a good value. The happy hour version is the same, with two for $8. $4 for one small coconut shrimp = ka-ching!

On a similar note, the Roasted Australian Lamb Chops ($42) were a huge disappointment. For the price, one expects more than two thin medallions and what was maybe three ounces of meat. The cut was too thin to come out medium rare – and didn’t – but since the waitress never came back to check, there wasn’t much choice after a while but to finish what there was. Order this and don’t be surprised to find yourself gnawing on a thin bone like a character in the Hunger Games.

The lamb chops. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The plate itself offered an excessive yet incongruent array of sides: the lamb marinade was cloying sweet and reminiscent of tamarind raisin chutney. The tiny chops were flanked by steamed, unseasoned butternut squash on one side and broccoli on the other. The lamb was resting on a bed of spinach covered in garlic so raw it was bitter. The gnocchi, however, was sublime. Perfectly fluffy, with an unexpected but on-point horseradish flavor, the goat cheese-based pasta didn’t miss a beat.

The Wok Fried Brussels Sprouts With Ginger Soy ($9) were cooked well, but drowning in a really sweet – REALLY sweet – gingery sauce. Granted, we were warned in the title, but this is a terrible shame as they had great char and probably great flavor. Order the cloyingly syrupy sauce and the chopped peppermint (taking the sweetness somewhere almost uncomfortable) on the side.

The Alii Mushrooms ($12) were blessedly simple. They needed salt, but that was an easy fix.

The Brussels Sprouts. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

All in all, too many dishes were unnecessarily sweet. There were some fantastic flavors and memorable bites, but in the end we left feeling overly full, yet somehow unsatisfied.

Earlier, our waitress was anxious to pontificate on the dating scene in Lahaina versus Kihei. However, when it came time for our check, we found ourselves alone for so long we started to wonder if we pay at the hostess stand.

Happily, there is half off available for kama’aina from 8-9:30 p.m. This took the edge off some of the disappointments, and made the highlights a “must try.” Mala offers some excellent food (and uncommon value in the last hour and a half of operations)…you just need to know what to order.

We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line.

Dying to know how a certain dish is made so you can recreate it at home? Send in a request, and we will try to pry the secret out of the chef…and even take a run at cooking it up ourselves. Mahalo. -vanessa(@mauinow.com)

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