This year, for the first time in a very long time, I celebrated my birthday away from home!
Shake had to work on Maui, so he bought me a plane ticket so I could come along and lounge at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Kapalua pool while he did his thang talking to them about one of their cool programs. Whoopee! This ranks way up there in the pantheon of “Best Birthdays.” Totally right with my fifth birthday when my parents threw me a party at Farrell’s and had Professor Fun entertain all the kids.
For starters, this incredible dessert tray appeared in our room.
I sampled a bit of everything (Shake ate all the little shiny crunch balls) and wished later that I’d thought to bring some Tupperware and stash the leftover cake in the fridge—it was a wonderful liliko‘i pound cake. I held back from eating it all, though, because I wanted to save room for what I knew was going to be an incredible dinner.
Shake had made arrangements with this good-lookin’ guy to the right, Chef Isaac Bancaco of Andaz Maui’s Ka‘ana Kitchen, to sit at the “Chef’s Table” in his recently opened restaurant. Not only is Isaac a fantastic and creative chef, he’s a flat-out awesome guy. Shake first met him years ago when Isaac worked at another restaurant and selflessly agreed to take him on a personal tour of Upcountry Maui (where he’s from) farms for a story. A story on farms, not about chefs or restaurants. That didn’t matter to Isaac—he just wanted to share the people and places he knew. I’ve wanted to dine at one of Issac’s restaurants since then—I’ve missed him at two establishments until finally catching up with him at Ka‘ana!
Ka‘ana Kitchen is a truly uniquely designed restaurant. There’s a main dining room with incredible views out across the Andaz property to the ocean, but the real focal point is the open kitchen. You’ve never seen a kitchen that’s this open. Each night, the crew has to break down everything and whisk it away behind the scenes because there are no refrigerators, no cabinets, no shelves, no walls at all. Our “Chef’s Table” had us seated right on the pass—we got to watch as each dish came through to be inspected by Chef Isaac. I’m not completely sure that our seats were actually meant for guests (nowhere to tuck your knees, really) but I didn’t care. It was fantastic.
This is clearly a place meant for people who love food and want to see what’s going on. There really are “Chef’s Table” seats that allow guests to sit along the kitchen counters, so close to the action you feel like you should offer to help cook. And in a really unique twist, wine pairing dinners here start with guests selecting the wines; the food is paired to match.
The menu is also hyper-local and divided up by provider.
Categorized under “Surfing Goat Dairy,” for example, there was a Lobster Ceviche, a Grilled Octopus and a Hāmākua Mushroom dish. All incorporated SGD’s cheese in some manner. And so it goes among five different categories. As you can see, the dish isn’t necessarily cheese-focused (phew!) but it the cheese certainly enhances it as a whole. The Grilled Octopus, in fact, was one of my favorites. The Ceviche killed, too. (Both are pictured below.)
The smart way to go is to divide and conquer—have each person order totally different plates so you get to sample everything—Ka‘ana, after all, means “to share.” And this is what Isaac did for us. I tried to be a good sharer, but everything was so delicious, sometimes it was hard to part with the other half. On the other hand, I had to give some up to get some, and the dishes that started out in front of Shake were equally as excellent as the ones that started on my side of the counter.
Issac is, as I said, a smart guy, though, and he knew there was no way that either of us would give up any of this dish:
This is the Kona Abalone Risotto with Kampachi “Bacon” and Onsen Egg. (An onsen is a Japanese hot spring; traditionally, eggs would be cooked in the hot springs, low and slow, until they were just barely set. Yums.) This is actually the creation of one of Ka‘ana Kitchen’s other chefs, Mijin, and the most popular dish among our friends and acquaintances who have been to Ka‘ana. It is, honestly, stab-your-dining-partner-with-a-fork-if-they-try-to-steal-it good. Kona abalone is fantastic to begin with, meaty and just briny enough. Add in some creamy risotto and runny egg goodness. Top it off with the salty-umami kick of the smoked and cured kampachi “bacon.” I want to eat this every day. (We got smaller portions than are normally served, so that we wouldn’t get too full on rice. Told you Isaac was smart.)
And in one of the most atypical statements to ever come out of my mouth, I also declared that Isaac’s Brussels sprouts salad was my other favorite dish of the night. I previously had only consented to eat Brussels sprouts in the form of Chef Sheldon Simeon’s Fried Salad at Leoda’s Pie Shop. But Shake assured me that Isaac’s were even better.
I have to say: He was right. (Sorry, Sheldon. Yours are still the only other ones I’ll eat!) I just couldn’t get enough of the salty-citrusy dressing and the charred, crispy texture reminded me of nori (dried seaweed). Which probably isn’t something most people get excited over, but I do! The salad is actually not on the Ka‘ana Kitchen menu; they’re served at the Lehua Lounge (pool bar).
One more highlight: the tako (octopus). As I mentioned, the Grilled Octopus dish is in the Surfing Goat Dairy section of the menu. It’s served with some grilled bread (kind of like a panzanella salad), frisée lettuce and SGD’s “Secret Sicily,” which is chèvre marinated in olive oil with thyme, garlic and lemon zest.
The tako was super-tender and it went incredibly well with the chèvre. I’m not at all accustomed to having cheese with my seafood—Hell, I’m not accustomed to much cheese at all!—so I was really surprised at how well the two matched. Shake and I debated whether my father (the ultimate cheese hater) would eat this dish, much less like it. Shake says no, I say maybe he could be tricked into at least trying it. (That weekend, at my family birthday dinner, we asked. Dad said no.)
Hover over the photos for descriptions of the other amazing dishes we tried. (Or click over to the full gallery.)
What a way to celebrate my birthday! I’m very grateful to Chef Isaac, Chef Mijin and the rest of the Ka‘ana Kitchen crew and (goopiness alert!) of course to my Shake who makes every day ultra-special.
Back home, I made my birthday last all month long. It’s my personal philosophy that your birthday’s not over until the last slice of birthday cake is gone. And I didn’t get my birthday cake until nearly two weeks after my birthday, on St. Patrick’s Day.
It always has to be ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins. They didn’t have the flavor combo I wanted (chocolate cake + cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream) when we went to the store on Sunday so ordered one and went back for it on Monday. Awesome. Frozen frosting is totally the best.
After three weeks, which included celebratory drinks with various friends, two family birthday dinners (I snuck in an extra by spending the night at my parents’ house because of a work event where they made my other favorite dish, fried akule) my birthday was finally done.