Saturday, April 30, 2011

Feasting Flashbacks: Then and Now - Mala Tavern (Maui)

Mala the Magnificent

This little shipwrecked shack had been on my mind for the last two years. It was a stroke of luck that we’d found it in the first place, mostly because it wasn’t in any books and its plain dress would catch no eye. But it would catch, “The Ear”, my superhero persona known for excessive eavesdropping that honed in on a young local raving about the wok-fried fish, served whole, at Mala Tavern.

It ended up being the best meal of the trip. Returning two years later, I was all ready to “Practice Aloha” (Mala’s mantra) because what they were preaching, I was eating.

First trip
The wok-fried fish served two people and since Bubba still needed to name a winner in his sashimi showdown, we decided to check out the rest of the menu.

Chips and homemade salsa were served with mashed edaname, the kissing cousin of guacamole, and I was more than ready for a make-out session with this newfound, soy genius.

Goat cheese, onion and portabella flatbread was like an edible map of the island with every ingredient representing a product that had been made or grown on Maui.

Hoisin glazed baby back ribs, Molokai purple mashed potatoes, shiitakes, edamame & coconut peanut sauce. Ribs were firm, but not fatty with a sticky glaze that could rival any candy apple's brand of sweet, messy mayhem.

Avalon seared sashimi, yukon gold potato puree, shiitake mushroom ginger sauce (mild, medium or spicy). Perfect sear. Perfect sauce. We have a winner!

Second Trip

Pineapple martini - One sip of this and it reminded me how strong Mala's drinks were, but Maui-made, pineapple vodka was rougher than its namesake's rind. Maui moonshine, more like it...ouch - fire in the hole!

Buratta mozzarella with yellow and red tomatoes mellowed our palates as cream encapsulated in fresh cheese dissolved on our tongues. Ripe tomatoes and edible flowers also brought a certain softness to the dish and that's why I wished for more body from the bread than the wheat toast offered.

Whole wok fried fish with ginger garlic black bean sauce, shiitakes, tomatoes & snap peas. One fish, two fish. Red fish, blue fish. But what about pink fish? Pink snapper was the evening's special and stayed spicy with accessories like pickled ginger.

The fish was propped up straight, so that both diners got to dive into their own side like an undersea version of a banana split. The only bones I had to pick with this snapper were the ones I picked clean.

Carmen Miranda was Mala's dessert named after the flamboyant entertainer who took something as ordinary as fruit and made it fabulous. Fresh fruit with a scoop of vanilla had the same ability to shine without the bells and whistles. Sometimes simple is simply the best.

Mala Tavern served local love on a silver platter...covered in seaweed. Mala downplayed their sparkle, but knew their worth (entrees ran in the $30-something range), staying true to their mission to "Practice Aloha"...and Mala's Practice makes perfect.

**Check out Honu, Mark and Judy Ellman's (Mala owners) sister restaurant opening soon next door.

For more dish on Mala:

Friday, April 8, 2011

Raising the Bar - Banker's Hill (San Diego)

This is where I’d want someone to take me on a first date. Banker’s Hill Bar + Restaurant slung a cocktail of casual and cool, going down with the smoothness of James Dean. A sultry look, seemingly effortless, but somehow you knew endless hours had been spent perfecting this relaxed, bad-boy beauty (a "mussed" see).

Deceptive doors had us groping at small wheels instead of knobs and falling sideways into this saffron-of-the-earth (= salt-of-the-earth + stylish) joint, dimly lit by the Paul Bunion-sized arrow blazing its Operation-esque bulbs.

Janis Joplin was wailing away and the wine glass chandelier tinkled like backup percussion as we were led past dark, wooden tables towards the bar. But Southern Comfort wasn't the special here. Instead it was enough fancy fare to make you feel like a real lady…the kind of a lady that might want to belt out “Me and Bobby Mcgee” while using a duck thigh as a microphone.

Our server, Shell, was laid back, but not to a fault and matched the overall aesthetic. It would be like asking a hippy to hurry up with the bong…some things just can’t be rushed.

Appetizers: (around $7-$12)

Roasted garlic flatbread with Burrata - cucumber, olive, roasted red pepper salad and basil pesto

Artichoke and tomato bruschetta - goat cheese, white bean puree, basil, extra virgin olive oil

Entrees: (around $13-$20)

Duck confit with fruited Isreali couscous, broccolini, mostarda, cabernet jus

Crispy bbq braised pork tacos with pepper jack cheese, avocado, herb lime cream

Housemade semolina pasta bolongese with petite spinach, goat cheese and shaved parmesan

Burger with truffle fries, aged white cheddar, heirloom tomato

Blood orange cheesecake and sorbet - I couldn't get the camera out fast enough before dessert was bludgeoned by our forks.

And forks would be fondled here again. All the swagger was backed up by a confident menu, flawlessy executed while making it look easy (and pretty). Banker's Hill Bar + Restaurant was the best type of bad that knew how to cook.