What to Expect When You Feast … at Lele
Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef. She offers her frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.
By Vanessa Wolf
Although there are many luau opportunities on the island, the general consensus is that the Feast at Lele in Lahaina is one of – if not the – premier offering.
So what makes it stand out?
First and foremost, it’s not a buffet.
Rather, the four courses are split among four Polynesian nations: Hawai`i, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa.
The food is authentic to each region and the related stage entertainment follows suit.
All in all, it’s good stuff, especially as an education on the roots of this culture and food if you have out of town guests (or are one yourself).
So what can you expect?
First up is Hawai`i, and three dishes make an appearance.
The Pohole Fern, Asparagus, and Heart of Palm Salad is the three-bean salad of the South Pacific. Although the ingredients are fresh and unique, the vinegar and onion notes are the most predominant.
The South Island Catch with Mango Sauce featured Ahebi, a short-nosed spear fish. Our piece was a touch overcooked, but accompanied by a flavorful and bright mango pineapple salsa, which added some punch to the mild dish.
The Kalua Pork was one of the highlights of the whole meal. Flavorful and moist and served with some outstanding poi, we quickly flagged down the waiter and asked for more.
The accompanying boiled cabbage begs the age old question: Why boiled cabbage? Did an Irishman sneak aboard one of those early English ships?
Regardless, next is New Zealand.
The Upcountry Greens Duck Salad with Poho Berries Vinaigrette was spieled as “roasted duck salad with actual roast duck!”
Good to know, especially as it’s served in a scallop shell.
By now, darkness had fallen and one was left to rely on the senses of smell and taste alone.
Did the French settle New Zealand?
The dish comes across as quite French, particularly because of the notable tarragon flavor. Still, the duck is excellent, disorienting darkness and scallop shell and all.
Harore Kumara is a dish featuring roasted mushrooms with sweet potato.
In essence it seemed to be button mushrooms and onions in a wine or sherry sauce: quite French again, but who’s complaining?
The Kuku patties are a fishcake made with scallops, shrimps, and fresh fish. They are mild, but despite the promising ingredients, the net effect brings to mind Bisquick: doughy and bland.
The cuisine then moves to Tahiti.
The Eiota (Poisson Cru or Ceviche) is divine. Made with mahi mahi, coconut milk, tomato, cucumber and onion, you’ll find yourself wanting an entire bucketful of this. We fantasized about taking a bath in it…with a ladle.
In notable “can we have some more Eiota?” contrast, the Baked Scallops feature bay scallops. Overall, the dish is pretty weak. Scallops are in a thin garlicky cream sauce with panko on top. Meh.
The Fafa is defined as steamed chicken in taro leaf.
The shredded chicken is dry, but compensated for by the coconut milk sauce and well-cooked taro leaf. It’s no poisson cru, but it works.
The last island nation represented is Samoa.
The Shrimp and Avocado with Passion Fruit has a notable lilikoi flavor and also seemed to contain pineapple.
It is so sweet you may find yourself bracing for a run-in with a mini marshmallow. There’s a salty lime undertone that you can’t help but wishing would find a way to break through and balance the predominantly sugary flavor profile.
Palusami is described as young taro leaf with breadfruit or squash. We must have received the “or squash” version, as the squash flavor was (pleasingly) predominant. This was the one dish that wasn’t cloyingly sweet.
Apropos of nothing, make sure you have your camera out during this final course: Samoa is arguably the best performance of the evening. The fire dancer is unilaterally amazing.
Back on your table, Supasui – or grilled steak – is the last final Samoan offering. The meat seemed to be a flank or London broil cut and was a bit tough. It also featured a sweet glaze, leading one to the conclusion that they like their sugar in Samoa.
Speaking of sweet, dessert features a Caramel Macadamia Nut Tart. It’s intense – Holy Diabetes, Batman – with a rich pecan pie-ish filling.
However, unless you’re saddled as being the food writer and de facto designated driver, you may be too tipsy to notice.
Dinner is an all-you-can-drink affair, and most people seem to go for broke.
The drinks are top-notch, service is attentive, and the dishes are interesting and even memorable. In the mood to feast like Caligula? Consider Lele.
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 – Vanessa(@mauinow.com)