Kō May Bestow You With Super Powers

May 10, 2013, 5:17 PM HST · Updated May 12, 11:18 PM
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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

The Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be invisible, grab a seat at the bar at Kō at the Fairmont Kea Lani and find out.

It could be unfailing bad luck.

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It could be that the kama’aina deal (50% off food and 25% off drinks) is only offered at the bar and some sort of “you get what you pay for” situation in effect.

Regardless, expect things to be consistently inconsistent.

This is a crying shame as the oceanfront venue provides a beautiful backdrop and much of the food is excellent.

If you sit in the main dining area, you can expect to be presented with the fun and tasty edamame hummus starter. At the bar, however, it’s a crapshoot. Our own odds shook out to 33%.

The Ohana Style Kō Pupus offers three pre-selected appetizers for $45.

Ohana Style Kō Pupus. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Kobe Beef Poke ($26 if ordered individually) arrives delightfully medium rare. The meat jus muddles with the sesame oil, cucumber, tomatoes and onions to achieve an overall flavor that borders on a religious experience.

The Crispy Calamari ($18 a la carte) is crunchy and packed with flavor. Are those little squid battered, deep fried, and no way a friend to your bikini bod? You bet your cellulite ridden ass they are. However, if you’re looking to indulge, they’re the hot ticket.

The Lumpia Filipino Spring Rolls ($19 on their own) are also deep fried, with the predominant flavor profile being peanut oil. The accompanying sauce seemed to have been spilled during the trip over and there wasn’t enough for even three dips. Good luck getting someone’s attention to correct that.

Service is incredibly slow.

Chop Chop Sesame Salad. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Chop Chop Sesame Salad. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Drinks take 30 or 45 minutes to arrive, and the food even longer. It borders on impossible to get a water refill or a steak knife.

Those shiny metal chopsticks? Look out. One of those babies could take an eye out, especially if accidentally ricocheting toward a bartender in a desperate bid for attention.

After a while, guests start banding together like POWs. As our sense of “Do we still exist? Have we become invisible?” mounted, the woman seated beside us gave a comforting pat, stating “I feel your pain.”

When it finally arrives, the Ahi On the Rock ($26) is clever as the devil and twice as pretty. Two chunks of raw tuna accompany barbecue-hot stones. You cook the fish yourself. It would make for an interesting dinner party offering – and Chef Pang generously shares the recipe in his outstanding “What Maui Likes to Eat” cookbook – but it’s not a particularly good value for the price.

Similarly, the Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl ($20) provides an equally modest portion. Served atop sushi rice, the vinegar takes over and you can barely discern the delicate fish.

The Paella. We've been down this rosemary bush road before. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Paella. We’ve been down this rosemary bush road before. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Chop Chop Sesame Salad ($15) brings cabbage, shredded chicken, carrots and some lettuce. It’s lightly dressed and perfectly pleasant, but nothing special.

House Cake Noodles ($34) are a personal favorite, and Kō’s version does not disappoint. Homey and rich with flavor, it’s spot on.

The Kō Paella ($48), however, does.

It’s a continent or two away from being authentic and there is little to no fusion of flavor as one might expect. Why are the bell peppers al dente? What’s with the giant sprig of rosemary shedding all over the place and landing in every bite? And for the love of José Andrés, where’s the toasted rice bottom so critical it has its own name (socarrat)?

The Kō version is more like Uncle Ben’s with some seafood placed on top. It’s not bad – how can one argue with lobster, shrimp, mussels and clams? – but it sure isn’t what one thinks of when they read the word ‘paella’.

The macadamia nut-crusted makai catch. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The macadamia nut-crusted makai catch. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Makai Catch  – $46 and monchong in this case – was prepared Macadamia Nut-Crusted style and was much more to our liking. Served with a generous portion of softly wilted won bok with ginger butter, the fish itself was incredibly moist and tender. The sweet potatoes have a heavy coconut milk flavor and there’s a lot of ginger on the plate. If you’re not into ginger, consider a different prepration.

On first pass, our Paniolo Bone-In Ribeye Steak ($49 for Maui Beef, $58 for certified Angus) came out quite overcooked.

However, the second preparation nailed it and redeemed the situation, minus – again – the hedge of completely superfluous rosemary tucked beside it.

The Maui Cattle Company bone-in ribeye. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Maui Cattle Company bone-in ribeye. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Bear in mind the local Maui Beef Cattle version is a substantially smaller serving, a fact not abundantly clear on the menu except, perhaps, for the price distinction.

In contrast, the menu provides a thorough and excellent selection for vegan, macrobiotic, gluten-free, sugar-conscious, and even raw diners. This alone instantly makes the restaurant accessible to almost anyone.

That stated, and with kama’aina pricing for those that qualify, Kō offers a beautiful location and many solid menu options. Consider wearing fluorescent, light-up clothing or a talking bird on your shoulder because without it, you might discover that you suddenly possess the power of invisibility.

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)

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