Friday, December 23, 2011

La Bastide Bistro - Scripps Ranch, CA

Feasting Flashbacks: North County Noshing
Hot down, summer in…North County. Tiff and Matt had moved out of the city a few months before and even though I’d been enjoying their new Playboy-Mansion-sized pool, I was still pouting about how far away they were. And tonight was no different, especially since we were meeting them for dinner at some strip-mall in Scripps Ranch.

North County’s strip-malls were strung like pearls, plentiful and lined in neat rows, but more like gaudy, costume jewelry than precious gems. Though I had to admit, La Bastide Bistro seemed to possess some real value. My ears perked to the rustle of butcher paper, smoothed on tabletops for a crisp, clean canvas as my nostrils filled with food fumes that could rival pheromones aroused by Chanel No.5.

The intoxication didn’t stop there. A sprite-ly Chateau de St. Martin flitted on my tongue with the lithe of a diver's spring on the board before leaping into delicate flight - a refreshing plunge for the palate.

A plateful of nosh-ables arrived and though I found the pâté a bit passé, the rest of the group gobbled it up greedily, along with the cured meats that provided a perfect distraction from my farm fresh salad.

Jersey girls have a thing about their tomatoes and these were juicy, sweet and ripe. A good yellow tomato is like eating the sun – it encompasses all that is summer. Simple greens and a splash of good balsamic was all the dressing up these beauties needed. Clumps of goat cheese + tomato juices = nature’s vinaigrette.

The halibut was a hellava one with tomatoes, artichokes and baby red potatoes in a lemon/white wine broth, but Bubba was lucky we both ordered the same thing because when the two came to the table, mine was visibly larger. True to my wifely duties, I switched with him, but other table members wouldn’t necessarily have parted with the fuller fillet - uniform portions please!

The hanger steak was cooked with finesse and left tender in its red wine/ cherry reduction, but got a bit mired down with ingredients - the spice rub and sauce seemed to compete with each other. And though the meat paired well with a side of brocollini, you could crack a tooth on the rice.

The rice also acted as a weapon in the paella and I didn't even understand why this dish was appearing on a "Country French" menu. Why have a random, Spanish, specialty dish if you can’t execute it well? The rice was undercooked, the shellfish overcooked - it was a failure in every possible way.

Truffle mac-n-cheese was ok, nothing stand-out and in the end, I felt lucky with my selections – the wine, salad and fish were all a hit – but other orders weren’t so lucky. Worth the hike? Probably not, but I’d keep it in mind when I came up for a swim.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brandl's Revisited - Belmar, NJ

It’s tradition. The last night before I leave Jersey, my mom and I go to Brandl’s.

The two of us have been in a serious relationship, Brandl’s and me, for the last decade or so, with ups and downs like any couple. From countless run-ins with the icy maitre d'* to over-the-top elation at my wedding’s rehearsal dinner, we’ve been through it all. And even though it’s been almost 10 years, Brandl’s makes every meal taste like the first time.

*who's considerably thawed over the years

Maybe it's because I constantly find genius in concepts like their Caesar salad, whose whole leaves of Romaine are grilled for a charred depth that doesn’t leave them wilted, but instead, invigorated. Thick, homemade dressing kung-fu grips the greens, while shards of parmesan rest lightly as brides' veils beneath oven roasted tomatoes. The absence of croutons? Not even given a second thought and for this bread-loving braud, that spoke volumes.

Old McDonald met old money when it came to a deconstructed salad where goat cheese balanced foie gras (literally and figuratively) next to the grassy taste of mache sprouting from the center. But the cherry on top was a grape puree that arrived in a mini-Mason jar, ready to be studied like the precious specimen it was and poured as liberally as one wanted (...shots anyone?).

Eggplant fries just about blew my mind. Peeled like potatoes and deep-fried, these were worth talking about...even if my mouth was full when singing the praises of this veggie gone incognito. Kalamata-olive aioli only brightened this star’s shine and whether ordered as a side item or kicking it with Kobe sliders, this edgy eggplant was the new black.

Even simple pleasures like sautéed shrimp were done with rustic, yet elegant perfection and Brandl's was never selfish with their shellfish, especially when it came to lobster.

So many restaurants have lured me with the promise of lobster-laden dishes, only to find myself served some type of pink paste or fishy broth with no traces of my coveted crustacean. But at Brandl's, I knew this Maine delicacy would always remain the main ingredient and tonight it was featured in the evening’s pasta special. Orecchiette, meaning “little ears", had the curved nooks of its namesake and formed perfect cupholders for the white wine/ butter sauce. As expected, this was chockful of claws and tails with a bit of Jersey corn and tomatoes thrown in to accentuate the lobster's natural sweetness.

They must have taken this duck's temperature because its doneness couldn't have been more spot-on. The juices were flowing, but crisp skin broke off in salty snaps. Add that to the decadence of duck-fat, roasted potatoes cleansed by the refreshing crunch from Napa cabbage = one flawless fowl.

Sure, sometimes Brandl's tossed a “lil’ Manhattan” attitude around, but I think it was their way of coping with the fact they were in Belmar, a blue-collar town that didn’t always appreciate “fancy schmancy” schmorgeous boards. But that never stopped Brandl’s from bringing quality product and creativity to the table. More pricey than most in the area (entrees high $20s - low $30s) and catering to a select palate, I don’t know how Brandl’s survived this long in the game, but I love them, and with all of the history between us, I guess I always will.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Daniel's Bistro - Point Pleasant, NJ

Booze clues: No liquor license? No problem. One of the best parts about central Jersey is that there’s a limited amount of liquor licenses given to restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t drink. Being able to bring our own wine (no corking fees) to Daniel's, wiped out the chance of a pricey, bar bill and let the dollars focus on the food.

First bite delight: There’s nothing I love more than an amuse bouche (free food!), so I couldn’t have been happier when I received a mini-bowl of creamy, tomato bisque with a buttery crouton…not exactly an amuse bouche (= one bite), but I was on board with the showmanship.

Though, I did get a bit confused when seconds later a bowl of olives came out, quickly followed by tomato bruschetta. It seemed a bit disjointed, but I figured the more taste tests the better.

Our waitress, Courtney, was always there when needed, especially when I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any bell pepper in the crab-cake appetizer*, and although she was almost 100% certain, she went back to double check.

*I HATE when there’s no mention of bell pepper on the menu and then I’m confronted with a patty studded in giant chunks of uncooked veg…it happens more than you think.

Let them eat (crab) cake: Cooked, bell pepper was barely in the mix (but note, still there), so I decided to chance it because these were made with lump crabmeat. And though there was plenty of crab and no excess fillers, its stringy quality left me longing for my lumps, my lumps, my lovely-lady-lumps…but there were none to be found. Sautéed spinach and lemon aioli were complimentary touches, but didn’t make it worthy of a re-order.

Hail the snail!: My usual reason for ordering escargot is that it creates a socially acceptable setting for me to drink garlic butter, even if I have to chew on a rubberband-like protein in exchange. But these snails were treated with respect. More tender than Elvis’ plea for love and bathed in a white wine butter sauce, they shone as the centerpiece and were brought out of their shell in the best possible way.

Pesto Change-o: It seemed a bit rich for an appetizer, but roasted figs stuffed with pistachio pesto changed my mind in a mouthful. A balance between fruit and nut was struck with the help of a sticky, fig reduction and an erected statue of proscuitto was proudly hailed by the surrounding figs as a symbiotic and salty counterpart.

Duck, duck, goose (liver): Whoever came up with the expression, “with a cherry on top”, clearly didn’t have any foie gras on hand. This was the finishing touch that couldn’t be outdone, especially when its buttery perfection landed on top of sliced, duck breast.

Well, normally it wouldn’t be outdone. But what if the duck topped with foie gras was then topped with a duck-filled ravioli? Add the deep, berry tang of a sumptuous, currant sauce and this was the stackable sensation that Daniel’s built…a tower where I would have willingly locked myself away forever.

Crustacean Frustration: I wish I could will myself to like scallops. Scallops are like dating a great guy that everyone else loves, but for me there's zero chemistry. That didn’t mean I didn’t covet them from time to time, hoping it could work, and Daniel’s caramelized jewels of the aquatic made me consider giving them another chance…still not a fan, but can’t say I won’t applaud the preparation, especially since they were accompanied by real, lump crabmeat risotto. Now these were lumps – the double D’s of the deep sea – I couldn’t help but let my eyes linger. The “risotto” (not a true risotto – didn’t spread on the plate) was more firm than creamy, but fabulous all the same.

Humble Halibut: This halibut hung its hat on home-style simplicity and let the fish speak for itself. The few components that did appear on the plate harmonized as a whole while letting the halibut remain the star. Sautéed porcini mushrooms brought an earthy chunk and delicate base to its broth, while fresh green beans and grape-sized, heirloom tomatoes sang songs straight-from-the-garden, delivering crisp crunch and acid that resonated with the earthiness of the mushroom.

Brownie Points: The crème brulee was good, but even better were the complimentary, brownie bites brought to our table as a final farewell.

The Real Deal: Some people might say it’s a bit pricey (entrees in high $20s – low $30s range), but when you consider the quality of ingredients, creativity and don’t forget the absence of a bar bill, Daniel's is a deal...the real deal.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chef Sean: Coast to Coast

West Coast - Cali

On the Lamb: Chef Sean knew he wanted to cook lamb shanks, so I decided to take him to Iowa Meats. $7.99 a lb - wow! That was a bit more than we expected (especially when we saw them later at Whole Foods for $3 less a lb.), but I’ve never been so pleasantly shocked by a shank. These lambs must have been using Thigh Masters with the amount of meat lodged on their legs.

But their pumped up gams didn’t make them tough guys and with Chef Sean’s method of searing, then braising them in homemade Harissa sauce (tomato, coconut milk, cumin, allspice, coriander, honey, chilies), he'd been successful in creating a full on, fall-off-the-bone, flavor factory.

Using the old noodle: Well, stick a feather in Sean's cap and call it macaroni. Elbow macaroni was the key to this Mom-style, mac-n-cheese that reminded me of a savory M&M with its crisp, outer shell and gooey inside that melted in your mouth (not in your pan) with a cheddar base and handful of jack cheese for extra creaminess.

Dressed to impress: A simple salad of mixed greens, shaved carrots and heirloom tomatoes highlighted the chili/honey dressing that I could have drank by the glassful. But I did feel it needed one more element of crunch – maybe croutons - either way, the dressing should be bottled.

Dessert-ed Island: But I was most impressed with dessert for its elegant splendor, ingenuity and depth of flavor (apparently I was too busy eating to take a picture). Chef Sean married the suppleness of crème brulee and bright notes of citrus in his coconut milk & lime crème anglaise that was accompanied by a small island of mango sorbet. A refreshing getaway, in both taste and perspective, from the average dessert.

East Coast - Jersey

Major Rib-off: With Jersey's suffocating, summer humidity, it would have been torture to turn on the oven, so barbequing was the natural choice. We hit up Drew’s Market where baby back ribs were $7.99 a lb – again?! What were they, platinum ribs? Five racks cost over $100! Apparently our meat buying abilities were horrendous on both sides of the country and if we didn’t have a $65 gift certificate, we would have walked.

But I had other worries running through my mind when Chef Sean decided that the ribs would be cooked from start to finish on the grill. I usually begin mine in a low temp oven with a shallow, beer bath, but he insisted that 100% grill time would work. And with over $100 of meat riding on it, I hoped he was right.

Show us your tomatoes: Summer in Jersey = tomatoes and sweet corn. But I didn’t want to go to down the street to Matt’s Farm Market because they will rape you…well, your wallet anyway. That’s why on the way home from Manasquan beach (yet another reason I was nervous – ribs were grilling away while we were in the ocean!), we noticed Smith’s stand* flashing their tomatoes from the side of the Highway 71 and had to stop.

Smith’s basket of Jersey tomatoes, eight ears of corn, fresh romaine lettuce, avocado, an orange = around $15.

Matt’s basket of Jersey tomatoes, eight ears of corn, fresh romaine lettuce, avocado, an orange = bend over.

*There's another Smith's Farm Market on Allaire Rd that I remember being more expensive, so I don't know that they're affiliated with each other, but this stand was very reasonable.

With veggies taken care of, it was time to check on the ribs. I don’t know why I ever doubted Chef Sean because these babies were beauties. Their “low and slow” phase had tenderized and now it was time to get sauced. The homemade, barbeque glaze with Karo syrup and Mexican coca-cola formed a candy-apple-eque shell surrounding a juicy, meaty center…how many licks does it take to get to the center of a rib pop? *Crunch*...the world may never know.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vic's Pizza - Bradley Beach, NJ

A Thin Crust Must

My grandfather always ordered a cup of pasta fagioli with his pizza, so of course I had to do the same. Patiently waiting with the Shore’s summer swarms or seated immediately during the secluded winters, Vic’s was always our family meeting place. And that never changed. Even with my grandfather gone, Vic’s was always my first stop whenever I was back in Jersey.

Serving Superheroes: First order up, a carafe of $8 wine – that’s always a good idea, right? The all-female, serving staff are the Harlem Globe Trotters of the waitress-ing world, including our W-cubed (Wonder Woman Waitress), who read back our order and prevented a miscommunication (our fault) from going to the kitchen.

Blast from the (Anti)Past(i): This antipasti had been a staple of my childhood and the roughage flew as I dove into my favorite chopped salad of provolone, salami, olives, pepperocinis and house vinaigrette. Word of advice: Always get the house dressing when visiting Italian moop (= mom + pop) restaurants around Jersey…magical elixirs of the vinaigrette world.

Shellfish Promises: It’s so hard to trust a shellfish (a thin line between fresh and foul), especially mussels, but these were worth making yourself vulnerable. Mussels marinara were plump Pop-Rocks of the sea, exploding in briny bursts under the cover of a simple, red sauce.

Food Feud: Now this was Jersey thin crust pizza. Sure, there’s always the on-going battle with Pete & Elda’s (actually Carmen’s Pizza, but everyone calls it by this adjoining bar’s name) for ultimate paper-thin pizza, but P&E is just too cracker-y for my liking. My loyalty stuck with the sturdy, yet delicate dough of Vic’s swirled with a rich tomato base whose subtle notes of garlic and oregano sang with the eloquence of Ella Fitzgerald. Plus I loved their pepperoni - the size quarters and thick as poker chips.

All in the Family: This was old school. Not much has changed, a little updating here and there, patio dining added. But its core remained the same. The only noticeable loss was the absence of the old man that ran the place, a permanent fixture since my childhood. Somehow his presence had become synonymous with good times, good eats and family.

It’s funny the things you notice when they’re gone, what they represented. How a stranger’s presence or a bowl of pasta fagioli can bring you back to a certain place in time. And at Vic’s, every bite will bring you back.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Klein’s – Belmar, NJ

If you’re so in-Klein-ed

Swimming with the fishes: It’s like the mob…mobbed with enough wise-guy tourists (aka Bennies*) to force you out, but trumped by endless waterfront views and freshly cleaned fish to keep pulling you back in.

*Bennies = Guidos, Ronnies, Joey-bag-o-doughnuts…pretty much the cast of Jersey Shore

Klein's sea scallop sandwich = Jersey Shore summer.

Sushi sleuth: But I was eyeing the lobster sushi rolls. And by eyeing, I mean private eyeing. I’ve become so suspicious when it comes to lobster since I’ve lived on the west coast (Pacific lobster = no claws, tough and tasteless) and was relieved that I was back where Maine lobster is the main player.

So I went for the Belmar roll (represent, locals!) with lobster and spicy tuna wrapped in a thin sheet of edaname, but there wasn’t much lobster to get excited about and I realized that I’d dropped the ball when scoring my favorite east coast eats…why didn’t I get a whole lobster or the soft shell crab sandwich?!

And my dad’s fried shrimp, plump and lightly breaded with a healthy, pink sheen beneath, only made my ferocious case of food envy worse…at least I had the foresight to get my own order of waffle fries - possibly the best on the Shore.

But fish was the real lure here. Klein’s couldn’t be denied as one of the freshest fish stops in town (due to their own on-premise fish market) and though they weren’t cheap, quality seafood like this was worth paying a few extra clams.

P.S. I love you: Why I love my dad, Scooter = the personality of Joe Pesci + Rodney Dangerfield. We had a server that was training a girl and my dad was really worried that the trainee wasn’t getting tips, so he grabbed our waiter (literally) and made him find the trainee to slip her a $10.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Toast - Absury Park, NJ

Toast of the Town
You had me at red velvet pancakes. And Irish Benedict = corned beef hash instead of Canadian bacon.

Peace. Love. Pancakes. - Toast's mantra, carried over to the friendly and willing, yet somewhat forgetful wait staff. Forgetful, but not forgettable, especially since they owned up to any mistakes and clearly communicated about delays.

Plus, I was already distracted by my lobster roll (breakfast and lunch are available all day). Oh, Maine lobster how I love thee! West Coast living means giving up claw meat (and taste), since Pacific/Mexican Lobster is a pincher-less mutant whose tail is tougher than nails.

And although there were only about 4 bites, it was ALL LOBSTER (only a touch of mayo and lemon), served with a mini-pitcher of melted butter. But how could I justify the $16.95 price tag for an almost-amuse-bouche?

I was reminded of Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias when she told Sally Field, “I’d rather have one moment of wonderful, than a lifetime of nothing special.” Same went for lobster rolls – I’d rather have four bites of luxury, than a hoagie full of mayo and celery.

Toast earned another “A” in seafood with the shrimp BLT, where we switched out the Old Bay mayo for the refreshing cleanse of wasabi/cucumber sauce - perfection. Sides showed off sweet potato fries, but they didn’t hold a candle to the crisp class(ic)-act of Toast’s traditional version.

But tradition was bucked at breakfast, flaunting present day designs like Bananas Foster French toast (made with Challah bread) and Will's Firebird (gluten-free) pancakes. Homemade hash was salty and tender with enough sodium-filled protein to last me all day. And isn’t that what breakfast is about? That warm hug to your tummy that keeps you going? Toast spread on the edible love, thick, spinning homespun into a home-run.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

McLoone's - Asbury Park, NJ

One Hot (summer) Mess
You know you’re in trouble when the best part of the meal is the curdled “she-crab soup”. I put that in quotes because the real she-crab soup is supposed to have crab roe - this didn’t. Just clumps of clotted cream...the only cream of this (rotten) crop.

Drinks, I think? - I ordered the $10 mojito that came in one of those plastic cups you get at the dentist - swish and spit was exactly what came to mind.

No one’s hailing this Caesar = Lettuce, a sprinkle of grated parmesan (from a green can?) and drab, flat dressing. Where were my croutons, damn it?! The waiter told us, “I’ll try to muster some up.” By the sound of it I thought the chef would actually make us some fresh croutons, since they didn’t have any. Nope – he brought back box-cut squares that made me wonder why they weren’t in this $12 salad in the first place.

Clammy No-Neck - Little neck clams should be the size of a dime and sweet morsels of the sea. Instead we got gorilla necks...the kind of neck that would ruin a turtleneck it was so big. Gross. Even grosser was they were also rough necks = no one separated the clam from the shell. I guess that was our job, you lazy mother shuckers.

Fried green beans – How do you ruin a fried treat? Leave it to McCloone's. I’d envisioned the crisp snap of green bean beneath a tempura-esque shell, but instead I realized this glue-based-batter only housed the limp carnage of a canned “used to be” vegetable - the final insult.

Killing me softly - McLoone's is like a guy that looks like he has it all (beachfront seating, low candlelight), an amazing catch, "How could he be single?!"...and then you find a body in his basement. But even the dead would try to escape, as would the summer tourists that might get caught in this trap once, but not again, especially at these prices. McLoone's became a sad stop at what could have easily been the belle of the boardwalk.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Beerback Mountain: I can't quit you - Hillcrest's Local Habit (San Diego)

We came in for some change, and that’s exactly what we got. Not in terms of the quarters and dimes that we needed for parking, but Local Habit’s complete remodel of the former, Pizza Fusion, like one of those horrible romantic comedies where “the cool guys” bet they can turn some bland being into prom queen. And they’d succeeded (in a much less obnoxious way) because all it took was one glance at the specials menu to realize that our meter wasn’t the only thing about to get fed.

This nouveau man-cave was a bit sparse, but clean in design. Wooden accents broke up brightly colored walls and high ceilings, adding rustalgic (= rustic + nostalgic) elements with dishcloth napkins, Mason jars for water and serving hard-to-find hops from places like San Diego’s first nano-brewery, Hess. Habit’s own Adam and Andy, touted their selections with pride, beaming like proud papas about their secret stash they were willing to share.

Flights of beer made it easy for multiple taste tests and that carried over to the bruschetta special – your choice: one of each or three of the same. We decided to try them all, while sipping on some Ballast Point pilsner = summer in a glass.

Tomato confit/ bacon lardon – I saw the word “lardon” and I heard it calling my name. What?! Lardon isn’t that far off from Lauren – geesh!! Give me a break…and some more lardons please.

Roasted tomato and onion w/ anchovy – sometimes salty and delicious, other times a fishy flop, the anchovy can be a fickle beast…but Chef Nick clearly knew how to sooth this one - possibly my favorite.

Fresh heirloom tomato w/ burratta and basil – If Ballast Point pilsner was summer in a glass, this was summer on a plate - classic and clean, but pretty skimpy on the burratta.

My idea of bruschetta = 1-2 inch sliced, toasted bread + surface fully covered with tomato-based topping.

Local Habit’s idea of bruschetta = garlic butter + toasted bread + slices the size of a playing card (and not much thicker) + toppings pushed to one corner.

Not the norm, but fabulous all the same. I loved every one and admired their approach to taking what can sometimes be a clunky appetizer and streamlining it into this portable, two-bite-delight. Small, but mighty…the only problem was that I would probably need about 20 to fill up and at $5 per order, that wasn’t going to happen. But I'd be back, only next time I'd add on a Neopalitan-crust pizza (gluten-free crust also available) and to see what's (on) tap dancing behind the bar.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chef Sean comes to San Diego

Oh, you know Chef Sean. He’s that crazy pal of mine that used to be an executive chef back in the day, and still never ceases to amaze (or feed) me with his forward food concepts, bound to be served with a side of mayhem.

He was like an annoying, older brother that made sure to bring the fun, but always seemed to get me in trouble, so when he came to visit, I knew I had to start by giving him a dish best served cold…only because oyster shooters come that way.

Nick’s at the Pier: Take 10 steps from the beach and climb a flight of stairs to Nick’s = a full view of the ocean and pier with affordable/tasty sandwiches/tacos. But we’d come for the oyster shooters = take 10 steps back.

My idea of an oyster shooter: vodka + oyster + horseradish + hot sauce.
Nick’s oyster shooter: cocktail sauce + cocktail sauce + oyster + was vodka in there?

Nothing like a shot of ketchup. Thankfully the taste was washed out of our mouths with mahi tacos and beer at South Beach Bar & Grill:

It's not all mahi tacos I crave, only South Beach's concoction of shredded cabbage, melted cheddar and the thin white sauce (still mysterious in origin) atop this piece of fish, geometrically fitted to the tortilla's specifications. Every time I try to order something else (Rockefeller would surely grumble to know the oysters here shared his name and the lobster tacos aren't even a close second), I realize that they are the sole reason for my more

After stuffing our gullets, it was time to drop in on a bar who's name dropped whenever speaking fluent San Diego-ese, the Sunshine Company:

My favorite part about Sunshine, besides their strong pour Cadillac margaritas, is that it's half-n-half. Half inside, half outside. Downstairs, the kitchen and pool tables stay covered, while to the left "non-ceiling-ed" smokers feel as if they're breaking a cardinal rule, puffing inside with no one to call them out(side). And upstairs represented San Diego to a tee - all the sun you could drink (in) with a chaser of booze.

When the dinner bell rang, fancy fare wasn't necessary. Knowing Chef Sean's affection for burgers and beer halls, what other choice was there than Hamilton’s:

Tap--- tap--tap___ Telegraph white__ served on tap- tap____
Like Ahab in search of his white whale,
I was Rehab in search of my white ale.

I had heard of this rarity, this Telegraph white, but was not prepared for a smoky glass of liquid barbeque. This hickory switch (up) stung my senses and branded beer its own food group, which seemed to be the norm at Hamilton’s Tavern* more

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Legend Continues - Trilogy V (Maui)

The best trilogy throughout time? Are you a Star Wars whore? Or do you tend to swing towards Lord of the Rings? Personally, my favorite bobbed in Ma‘alaea Harbor, boasting characters as memorable as Luke or Leia, with genuine charm, integrity and humor, against a backdrop with no need for special effects.

We approached a ferry-like boat, already mobbed with tourists shoving their way aboard, just as I heard a child's piercing scream from within. I tensed up in horror before realizing our vessel, the Trilogy V, was the serene catamaran tied next to this floating mini-van.

But that didn't mean we weren't going to be close - not in terms of space, but as a group. Yoshi, our captain, told us we were all family for the next five hours and went on to explain that if we had to go #2, that was the only time to flush toilet paper...then he asked us if we knew what #2 was (he was from Japan and they didn't have that there). We all laughed at Uncle Yoshi's lovable antics and got ready to sail.

But the "love boat” didn't stop there. All of the crew knew us by first name - pretty impressive (about 40 people or so) - plying us with juice and coffee before Mama's homemade cinnamon rolls arrived, along with a fruit platter fresher than a disobedient schoolboy (mango, papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple).

Molokini was the first of two snorkel destinations and we decided to SNUBA. What’s SNUBA?! Pretty much SCUBA without the commitment - the swinging bachelor of the diving world. The only difference being that our air tanks were attached to a raft above, so whenever we wanted to pop up for air, we had a place to rest - worth the extra cost of about $60.

Turtle Bay was the next stop, with much colder water, and only a few sea turtles spotted, but even more attention grabbing were the deafening screams of children from the sailing clown-car we’d seen earlier that morning, now anchored nearby. I felt a swell of pride like the kid who'd realized how cool her own family was and doggy-paddled back like a loyal retriever for lunch.

Lunch matched the quality of breakfast. Plates bearing teriyaki chicken thighs, rice, Ceasar salad and taro rolls were served as we lounged atop the cabin (offering seconds to make sure we were filled to the gills). Fresh ingredients + salty sea air = sea fare satisfaction.

The sail went up on our way back, while countless mother and calf whales took care of entertainment.

But they weren’t the only miraculous sights in the middle of the ocean. This woman must have arms of steel…and her kid must have some good balancing skills. Paddle on sister!

The necessary three of Trilogy:
1) Integrity: only morning launches since the ocean is rougher in late afternoon and they cancel if windy - unlike their competitors.

2) Appreciation: treating you with respect, but with a comfortable nature that automatically makes you feel welcome. Like a family member that came to visit and they’re showing you around the island.

3) The Crew:
(I’ve got almost all of their action figures…though I’m still looking for a Yoshi.)

Uncle Yoshi (Yoda) - wise, hilarious, humble, generous
Kyle (Han Solo) - the sarcastic softee, best SNUBA teacher ever
Dan (Luke) sweet, helpful, eager
Keoni (Lando) relaxed, under the radar, but always there when needed
Jenny (Princess Leia) beautiful and tough as nails, could go toe to toe with any of the men and they knew it.*

*But loved catching nurturing moments like how she was teaching Kyle a word of Mandarin a day.

I wonder how you would say thank you in Mandarin? Or that this was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Maui? Either way, I'm looking forward to the next family reunion.