‘ami ‘ami: Kihei’s Eclectic New Venue
By Vanessa Wolf
The latest venture from the owners of Café O’Lei and the Makawao Steakhouse opened in Kihei late last fall.
Make no mistake; this is not a French restaurant. Rather, ‘ami refers to the hip-rotation hula move, rather than the word for “friend.”
Occupying the breezy space formerly inhabited by Spices in the Maui Coast Hotel, ‘ami ‘ami’s updated decorating scheme is sleek, modern and appealing.
The menu is vast, varied and equally appealing, with two full pages of appetizers and small plates to start.
We began with the Soft Shelled Soft Shells ($9).
Two tempura-battered crab tacos arrive with copious lettuce, ancho remoulade, and some formidably strong pickled jicama. This is a bummer, as the strong sour and citrus notes imbued by the pickling brine overpower the delicately sweet crab.
In contrast, the Crisp Coconut Shrimp ($8) is exactly what you would expect. Five plump shrimp arrived fresh from the deep fryer with a nice ratio of crustacean to crunchy coconut batter: tried and true done right.
We were pretty excited to read the words Braised Pork Belly ($6). The uncured form of baon, you don’t see it offered on many Maui menus outside the five-star resorts. The ‘ami ‘ami version was perfectly prepared – fatty yet tender with a lightly crisp finish – but once again overshadowed by a garnish. It would be lovely if the generous portion of balsamic reduction were itself greatly reduced.
The Crisp Fried Green Beans ($6) are another example of solid execution of the tried and true. This dish will probably give your pacemaker a workout, but what a way to go.
We reckon you could tempura batter and deep fry just about anything – unripe bananas? Orange peels? Napkins? – with relative success, but fresh green beans make a much better choice when available. Garden-fresh, yet undeniably decadent, the mayo-based “Srirancha” only makes each bite better/worse.
The Stuffed Chicken Wings ($12) singlehandedly undid our lifelong assertion that we “never met a chicken wing we didn’t like.”
Words such as “funky” and “creepy” were bandied about, and we weren’t able to finish even a single wing.
Stuffed with brie cheese, deep fried and then drizzled with balsamic, honey and truffle oil, it’s just too dang sweet in all the wrong ways.
We’d suggest a change to the cheese for starters; say maybe aged extra-sharp cheddar along with some thin-sliced jalapeño tucked in there as well.
Moving on, the Coconut Crusted Breast of Jidori Chicken ($25) offered a great balance of sweet and savory. Reminiscent of the daily (or at least every time we’ve ever been there) Café O’Lei fish lunch special and surrounded by coconut butter sauce, the chicken was impeccably prepared.
Jidori is the trademarked name for free-range chickens grown by Mao Farms outside Los Angeles. Beyond their comparatively happy lives, the birds are renowned for being delivered fresh (or overnighted) the same day they’re slaughtered.
Accompanied by a mash of the ever-beautiful-but-oh-so-starchy Molokai sweet potatoes, the dish exemplifies a play on tradition updated with local island flavors.
The Flame Grilled Ahi Steak ($33) maybe had an off-night. Although our nervous, well-intentioned waiter inquired three times as to how we’d like it prepared – rare – our fish arrived medium and then some.
Perhaps this was due to the burning rag sitting on top of it.
As we sat and considered the spectacle that had just been placed before us, another waitperson ran up and deftly removed the flaming cloth, only to commence beating it against a plate.
Apparently this now-smoldering swathed bundle of dry rosemary branches had been sent out on purpose to add a fiery herbaceous flavor to the fish while providing a fun adrenaline rush for wait staff/guests.
Smoke rises, yo.
And perhaps as a result, the rosemary particulates didn’t permeate the tuna so much as our hair.
Despite the failed gimmick and being cooked beyond our preference, the ahi was fresh and possessed an excellent grilled flavor.
Unfortunately, it sat on what notes from the evening describe as a “mashed ‘ulu cheese bomb fiasco.”
‘Ulu is bland, mealy and exceedingly hard (honestly, we think it might be impossible) to render delicious. We get that. You can’t fight City Hall.
Masking it probably seems like a good call, but not necessarily.
The ‘ami ‘ami version is mashed, but a few hard, starchy pellets remain, lest you forget you’re eating breadfruit.
It’s then topped with half-inch layer of flavorless melted cheese – or was that a thickened buerre blanc? – and crowned with the fish.
We felt like a dog whose master was trying to sneak a pill down its throat by hiding it in a chunk of Velveeta.
Successful? Not so much.
Lastly, we tried the 12-ounce Hawaii Ranchers New York Steak ($29). It arrives a la carte with the exception of a pat of mustard butter. An additional order of Mashed Russet Potatoes ($6) was quickly dispatched when we realized this.
The steak also had a lovely, smokey grill flavor, but was overcooked, probably owing to its thinness.
The mashed potatoes were rich and satisfying and went well with the rich, savory meat.
All in all, the main dishes were satisfactory, but not outstanding when considering the price point.
In contrast, the highly shareable and eclectic pupu offerings are unique and well priced for Maui. Not everything works – but we imagine with time those kinks will get ironed out – and what does is definitely worth a try.
‘ami ‘ami is located at 2259 South Kihei Road inside the Maui Coast Hotel. They serve breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. daily.