Bringing Tradition to the Table in Mākena

February 16, 2016, 1:00 PM HST · Updated February 16, 1:00 PM
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According to the Chinese calendar, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey. The Red Fire Monkey, to be exact.

Monkeys are known to be clever. And you could say the same about a certain resort in Mākena, where the Chinese New Year buffet has been going strong for decades.

“It’s been a tradition since the Prince days, I believe, since 1986,” explains Food and Beverage Director Leo Mallari at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort, whose owners took over the property formerly known as Maui Prince Hotel in 2010.

On Saturday, Feb. 13, performers came from Oʻahu’s famed Kung Fu school, Au’s Shaolin Arts Society, to put on a festive Chinese Lion dance for diners. The colorful, musical show is always a hit, especially with kids, who like to put red, money-filled envelopes in the lion’s mouth. Those donations foster good fortune in the new year, and support the society’s youth programs and cultural initiatives.

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Those lions may have mesmerized the diners, but the food at this Chinese New Year celebration deserves a place in the spotlight too.

The Asian-themed buffet takes up four rows, with a large number of traditional items, thanks in part to an internship program with Shanghai University. Students stay in Mākena for several months to learn about all aspects of operating a hotel. A few years back, they gave chefs an education on some authentic Chinese menu items.

“Anywhere from our China Town noodle salads to our white boiled prawns to our black peppercorn beef brisket, that’s all very traditional,” says executive chef Kurt Lesmerises.

So is the generous spread of desserts, like almond cookies, tapioca pudding, mango tarts, fruit salad and Chinese New Year cake, which the chef likens to butter mochi. But along with the traditional, there’s a mix of mainsteam offerings.

“We also have a lot of Americanized stuff, that people want to see,” Lesmerises explains.  “Llike the Kung Pao chicken is a must-have.”

Mākena chefs are no stranger to big, beautiful buffets. Molokini Bar & Grille showcases at least two per week, with a Friday night seafood spread and longstanding Sunday brunch. Leaders say they’re well-known for their buffets, which offer a substantial value for both visitors and locals.

“We enhance our holiday buffets,” says Mallari, “so Mother’s Day, Easter, Christmas, they’ve all been through the roof with great reviews.”

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    Ice sculpture in the sunset during Mākena Beach & Golf Resort's Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Ice sculpture in the sunset during Mākena Beach & Golf Resort’s Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Traditional almond cookies at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Traditional almond cookies at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Executive Chef Kurt Lesmerises at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Executive Chef Kurt Lesmerises at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Steamed crab legs at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Steamed crab legs at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Traditional black peppercorn beef brisket at Chinese New Year buffet, Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Traditional black peppercorn beef brisket at Chinese New Year buffet, Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chef sharpens knife next to the roast pig at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chef sharpens knife next to the roast pig at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mai Tai on the table at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mai Tai on the table at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mākena Beach & Golf Resort's hotel rooms will be turned into private luxury condos. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mākena Beach & Golf Resort’s hotel rooms will be turned into private luxury condos. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Sweet almond tofu at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort's Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Sweet almond tofu at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort’s Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Leo Mallari, Food & Beverage Director at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Leo Mallari, Food & Beverage Director at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Live entertainment at Molokini Bar & Grille in Mākena. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Live entertainment at Molokini Bar & Grille in Mākena. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Rows of food at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort's Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Rows of food at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort’s Chinese New Year buffet. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chinese New Year ice sculpture at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Chinese New Year ice sculpture at Molokini Bar & Grille. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Sunset at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Sunset at Mākena Beach & Golf Resort. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Drummers and lion dancers from Kung Fu school, Au’s Shaolin Arts Society. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Drummers and lion dancers from Kung Fu school, Au’s Shaolin Arts Society. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Diners put money-filled envelopes into the lion's mouth during the Chinese New Year celebration in Mākena. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Diners put money-filled envelopes into the lion’s mouth during the Chinese New Year celebration in Mākena. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mākena Beach & Golf Resort, which plans to redevelop into a private condo community. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mākena Beach & Golf Resort, which plans to redevelop into a private condo community. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

    Mallari introduced the Winery of the Month series in 2013, which expertly pairs top-notch wines with multiple-course meals, for between around $90 and $130 per person. The series has featured such wine brands as Cakebread Cellars, Duckhorn, Craggy Range, Banfi Vitners, Miner Valley, Cade, Rombauer, Paradigm, Silver Oak, Joel Gott, Alexander Valley Vineyards and Vine Cliff Winery.

    “In the four years I’ve been here, we’ve probably done about 40 already, so we do two a month,” explains Mallari.

    That other monthly event is a Wine Education Series, which includes commentary from Master Sommelier Patrick Okubo, food demonstrations by Chef Lesmerises and live entertainment, usually for about $60 per person.

    There’s more. For the first time, Mākena Beach & Golf Resort will host a six-course Sake pairing dinner this Friday, Feb. 19. Featuring some of Japan’s finest sakes, the event costs $75 per person, and you can see details here.

    The public may want to enjoy the events and buffets while they can. Mākena Beach & Golf Resort is planning to convert its 300+ rooms into fewer than 50 private luxury condos, which will make Molokini Bar & Grille available to “members only.” No word on exactly when the transition will start, but the vision also includes the addition of a new hotel on the 1,800-acre property, redevelopment of the old golf course and expansion of the golf clubhouse.

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