Maui Food and Dining

Isana Restaurant Disappoints

November 23, 2012, 5:12 PM HST
* Updated November 23, 7:48 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

Holy bloodline, Batman. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Have you ever raved about a new love to everyone you know?

Then the day comes that you introduce them to friends and family, confident in the presumption that they will fall equally hard …and everything – inexplicably – goes so very, very wrong?

Have you ever shown that same new love off to entirely different group of friends…and then watched in slow motion horror as it happened all over again?

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Imagine if that love interest was the restaurant Isana, your new unpredictable and embarrassing lover.

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Fool me once, Isana: shame on you. Fool me twice?

Well, in their defense, everyone knows you should not get sushi at a Korean restaurant.

Complain and you’ll get a new plate with less bloody slices…and a whole lot less fish. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Still, for a while there, Isana’s hamachi sashimi was the best thing going. For $21.95, one was treated to a dozen thick, buttery, fresh slices of hamachi: the kind of plate limited to kings and last meal requests.

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But now? Not so much. Strange things are afoot at Isana, and that’s not good news.

Yes, you can still get the generous portion of hamachi sashimi for the same price, but don’t expect that light, clean flavor of yore. Hamachi, the Japanese word for tender young yellowtail tuna, has a whitish color due to its high fat content and is reliably smooth and mild.

However, for reasons unknown, Isana now serves theirs with the bloodline intact. All pelagic salt water fish have what’s known as a bloodline, a dark red area which runs along the filet interior to the lateral line. Even if you ask for pieces that aren’t half bloodline, they bring new ones that don’t look much different (and with a punishing, diminished portion). It’s an incredible disappointment…and unpleasant eating.

The shrimp jhun. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Not only does the bloodline of an older fish possess a notably strong, fishy flavor, but contaminates such as mercury, other heavy metals and PCPs concentrate heavily there. Bloodline is occasionally included in traditional Japanese sashimi to show that the fish is fresh. If the fish is super fresh, it doesn’t taste like fish.

At Isana, the first few chews are like the good old days, until the fishy punch hits…and stays. Your friends shoot you dirty looks and you can hardly blame them. Who is this inconsiderate love interest you’re inflicting on them all, anyway?

Then comes the Shrimp Jhun ($14.95), a “shrimp and vegetables pancake” and things aren’t looking up. The Seafood Jhun is, in fact, is a big tempura omelet filled with green onions, zucchini and shrimp. Is it worth $15? Not even close.

The Kodeunguh Gui ($17.95) is, thankfully, the same as it ever was. The two bone-in, broiled mackerel filets arrive with good char and in ample portion.This is a happy relief.

The Kodeunguh Gui Photo by Vanessa Wolf

It’s a Korean restaurant, after all, and the Dolsop Bibhim Bhap ($14.95) is relatively reliable choice in a pinch. The rice, beef, vegetable and egg combination arrives in a hot clay bowl, as is tradition. However, Isana’s variation isn’t as hot as it should be: excellent Bibimbap continues to sizzle and cook in the serving bowl and the bottom forms a crust like Spanish paella. This isn’t that…but it’s okay.

The sushi bar experience is equally hit or miss. No matter what the hour, most of the wait staff tends to be sitting together at an adjacent table, clearly too busy chatting to deal with you. As a result, service of anything but sushi is reliably slow.

Complementary edamame is provided, and the sushi chefs themselves are attentive, albeit somewhat incomprehensible. Prepare to exchange plenty of “I have no idea what you’re saying right now” smiles and confused head shakes with the chef. Still, the good intentions come through despite the language barrier.

The shrimp tempura roll. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Shrimp tempura roll ($10.95) is a reliable option. The shrimp is fried fresh and is still warm in the roll. It also contains the crab mix found in the California roll. The rice is well prepared, resulting in a fresh and  flavorful roll.

The eel avocado roll ($12.95) is exactly as described. Again, solid rice preparation helps tremendously, and this can be said for all their rolls.

All in all, since the hamachi’s fall from grace, there is nothing spectacular going on at the Isana sushi bar, though nothing terrible either. As one of the only places on the island where you can get sushi prior to 5 p.m., it’s a solid option in the “in between” hours.

If you miss such 80’s classics as “Cherish” and “The Lady in Red” you can enjoy them in muzak form as you dine. If you’re there on a night the karaoke bar is full swing, there is nowhere to hide from the musical stylings of your upstairs neighbors.

Maybe they’ll get the hamachi situation straightened out and the best sashimi deal on Maui will rise from the ashes. Until then, however, it’s hard to recommend Isana as things are no longer as they were.

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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