Acclaimed Maui chef, with the Midas touch, Mark Ellman’s Mala Ocean Tavern has a new little sister and she is anything but little. Situated oceanfront at the Marriott, Mala Wailea boasts that there isn’t a bad seat in the house, that’s if you don’t mind palms, sunsets and sweeping ocean vistas with your meal.

Last night I had a chance to eat there and had a wonderful evening of wine, food and friends… As luck would have it the main dining room was bought-out for a wedding. Perfect start… that meant we had to settle for a table on the balcony of the lounge overlooking the Marriott’s beautiful pools with the moonlit ocean beyond. I plan on asking for that table again when we return! I love this kind of dining. Right after being seated, and after checking that they weren’t in a push to turn our table over we told our waitress that we were not in any rush, please take her time, we intended to be there all night. There may have been a wedding next door, but we were planning a dining honeymoon.

We settled in with menus and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Jam Cellars, lots of lush, bright fruit notes and a hint of chocolate. Not a big finish, but a completely likeable wine. The menu was looking promising too with nearly a dozen starters to get the gastronomic the ball rolling. I love a menu that makes it hard to choose… So far I wanted about 2/3rds of the starters, this was going to be fun! My partner hemmed and hawed a bit before settling in on the oyster shooters, WOW, good choice. Hood Canal, one of the main basins in the Puget Sound, is famous for their oysters and clams and Mr. Ellman knows exactly what to do with them. He served them up in tall shot glasses in an ice filled bowl sided by lemon wedges and sporting a spike of chive. Down in the bottom of the glass was a plump oyster in ponzu with tobiko [flying fish roe] and a wee bit of wasabi. Shooter really is the wrong name, these oysters are meant to be chewed. The brininess of the oyster and the tobiko complimented the citrus in the ponzu and lemon, the wasabi “kicked it up a notch” and yet, when you chewed the oyster, it was the oyster flavor that won the skirmish. Our waitress was right, they tasted just like one wasn’t going to be enough, we had a couple more… My turn! After that soft oyster I was considering the Crunchy Calamari and told the waitress as much, again, she was spot

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on. She said the kitchen had gotten some calamari steaks in, they were cutting them long and thin, breading them up in panko and serving them with a miso soy/Thai chili/ginger sauce. Good call, they were as tender as any calamari I’ve had and that sauce was, well, good enough to bathe in! I guess the lump crab cake and the black tiger prawns are just going to have to wait until the next trip. Mala Wailea really is one of those places you could just do wine and pupus all night long!

While there were a number of great sounding salads, we played it traditional and split a Mark’s Caesar Salad, nothing remarkable about it, just a good Caesar salad. On the menu it just says flax seed croutons, but I would swear they were corn bread and flax seed, either way, they added a nice note…

Now we were in trouble, we’re in the lounge so the menu has a Tavern and a Pizza section. There’s a really fine looking “Entrees” section of the menu I was instantly drawn to with temptations like Whole Wok Fried Fish, Steamed Manila Clams and a Filet Mignon in a shallot port wine sauce… but nooo, there’s this pesky Tavern section trying to seduce me! A house made Ahi Burger, a Kobe Beef Cheeseburger or even Mark’s “Adult Mac and Cheese” –with Mushroom Cream, Mozzarella, Pecorino, and Maytag Bleu Cheese -they were all trying to have their way with me. Funny, as I am writing this, by chance, the theme from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly is playing in the background with its haunting harmonica underscoring the anguish I was experiencing last night as I fought the urge and resolutely moved down the page to take my rightful place on the dinner menu among the Entrees. OK, so add into tonight’s “Entrée Invitational” a Balinese Stir Fry with Fresh Island Fish, Crispy Coconut Shrimp and Roasted Australian Lamb Chops, the pressure was building. A foodie friend told me the whole fish was off the charts and I saw one go by, he might be right. I guess it’s time I admit to a long term lamb addiction. I used to raise lamb on the east coast, back in the day and will always be grateful for that time in my life when I had an unlimited supply. How’s this for near perfection, we even had about ¼ acre of mint that had been growing wild for several decades down by the pond. Every time I cut the fields when I hit that area the whole valley smelled of mint! Mark’s chops come with our local Surfing Goat Cheese & Herb Gnocchi, glazed butternut squash and what he understatedly calls Thyme Lamb Jus. The victor had risen to the top and we decided to split an order, which they were kind enough to do in the kitchen for us. We weren’t disappointed, it was fantastic! But Mark, calling it thyme lamb jus is a total disservice. When you take the time to make a proper red wine demi-glace [cooking down the bones in red wine for 3-4 hours with the usual suspects –carrot, celery, onion…] and mix that in with a tomato jam you painstakingly cooked down with a little sugar and vinegar and then finish with a 20 year old Balsamic vinegar, well, it’s not just thyme lamb jus! Of course that was the first thing I tasted on the plate and was the victim of my uncouth finger swipe when nothing else was left on that plate 20 minutes later! The little gnocchi’s subtle flavor, as tasty as they were solo, fell for the same pairing and a piece of the squash with a bite of the lamb would have worked perfectly too, but alas, the latter wasn’t really an option. My fork never touched the lamb itself but once. I swiftly cut the conjoined chops apart and picked them up with the built in handle and barely let go until there wasn’t a thread of anything left on the bone. They were perfectly pink on the inside, savory and delicious and the absolute highlight of the meal!

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The final sips of our wine and the clean plates –and bones, initiated the graceful transition into a cappuccino and browse of the desert menu. Here we go again, I want it all! There were several OMG moments in discovery and several “how can we not” contenders, but ultimately the Flourless Chocolate Torte Soufflé won out. Served up with the house made caramel sauce on vanilla macadamia nut ice cream and whipped cream the torte was just perfect. Chocolate oozed out of it when you cut in and danced on the palette with the ice cream like the white dressed bride and tux donned groom in the main dining room. A perfect marriage, and, like any big wedding reception, there was even a surprise guest at the party in my mouth, an unexpected Coquito! Coquitos are, for lack of a better term, baby coconuts. They are cultivated on Chilean palm trees and taste like coconut with a sweet nutty flavor and a distinctive ‘soft’ crunch. Need I say more? If you like chocolate and ice cream and macadamia nuts and coconut then you can’t help but love this desert. At their suggestion I joined it with a small glass of Justin “Obtuse” a cabernet sauvignon-based dessert wine from Paso Robles. If you’ve not tried this, seek it out. It has sweet raspberry and cherry notes that are balanced with its bittersweet chocolate finish. It’s actually a fortified wine and what that means is longevity, properly kept you can keep an open bottle for about 6 months, not that it would last that long, but that’s the theory anyway. You can guess how well that paired with the desert!

OK, as often happens I start writing and can’t stop… I get to live the whole meal all over again and as it took hours last night in ‘real time’ it seems only natural that it takes a while to re-tell… Needless to say, the balmy Maui weather, Mala Wailea, Mark Ellman, the ambiance, the food, the wines, the friends we saw and my dining partner all conspired to make it a wonderful Saturday evening. “Loved it!” -to be said al la Jon Stewart –in falsetto voice about 2 octaves higher than normal. I heartily recommend you try it sometime. Life is too long to not take lots of mini-vacations like this!

-Food for Thought