Day 8 on South Maui (pt III) – The Monkeypod Experience

A view inside MonkeyPod Kitchen

A view inside MonkeyPod Kitchen

I decided to write this separate post because it is important to celebrate greatness.  We’d been on Maui for seven full days and decided based on a search my wife had done to give MonkeyPod Kitchen a try.  As you’ll see, the food and drinks were very good, but what set this experience apart from every other dining experience on the island was the skill, natural ability and warmth of our server.  This is a post about good food, but more than that it’s about a college graduate and native Hawaiian surfer named Kevin.  Here goes…

As mentioned in my previous post (HERE) we’d spent our day really squeezing everything we could out of the day and when it was time for dinner we turned to a place less than five minutes from our Wailea hotel – MonkeyPod Kitchen in the Wailea Gateway Center. note: I realized I can’t quite figure out on which day we went to Ferraro’s versus this one, so no, we didn’t eat dinner twice I just can’t remember.

A view of the entrance to this solid Wailea spot

A view of the entrance to this solid Wailea spot

The place was a bit trendy, but not in an overly pre-packaged way.  The walls had these interesting little ornaments

Random wall ornaments that I assume are food of some sort

Random wall ornaments that I assume are food of some sort

And plenty of space for comfortable seating inside and out.  The live music was a pleasant enough addition, though I guess I’d prefer Hawaiian bands if for no other reason than to keep the experience going.  We settled in with our menus and our server very promptly appeared.  “Good evening guys, my name is Kevin, I’ll be taking care of you, tonight.  How are you both doing?” Simple enough start, but said with an earnestness that started us off on an easy path and stood in contrast to the canned version of this greeting common at an “apostrophe ess” restaurant.  We were, of course, doing quite well and said so.  Then Kevin, perhaps sensing the stilted nature of the typical service relationship, squatted next to us so that we were at eye level.  And then he started describing some of the drinks.  This ‘trick’ of getting on the same horizontal plane as the guests is something we see at Snooze restaurant in Hillcrest in San Diego quite often.  It feels comfortable and more relationship oriented than the traditional exchange.  Of course, this isn’t always practical (or, I suppose, desirable), but it appeared he’d taken a moment to evaluate how engaged we wanted to be with our service as opposed to just getting the meal.  He struck this tone perfectly.

As we moved into the menu options we were pleased to find plenty of sharable options.  Wife and I are among those eaters who prefer 1-2 bites of five things rather than 10 bites of the one thing, so MonkeyPod worked well for us.  We started with this

Ahi poke "tacos" of fresh, raw, outstanding fish

Ahi poke “tacos” of fresh, raw, outstanding fish

These Ahi Poke tacos were made of raw ahi, giner, shoyu, cabbage, avocado crème sauce, crispy wonton “shells”

This was an unexpectedly good starter.  We’d had a ton of fish over the last week and knew it was likely to be better than average, but this “taco” was one of the better raw preparations I’ve ever had.  Perhaps it’s an easy thing to make raw fish taste good.  Maybe nature already did most of the work.  I don’t know, I’m not a sushi chef, but I do know that the avocado crème sauce and the ginger were nice accents, with the avocado providing just a slight backdrop against the stronger ginger flavor.  That they found a creative way to present the dish was a nice bonus.  I’m going to start mixing meals because we actually liked our experience so much that we brought Wife’s brother and new wife (coincidentally starting their honeymoon) back here for their first meal on the island.  Yes, if you are wondering, we asked for Kevin—and waited 25 minutes for his section—when we came back.  He was just as great the second time.  In fact, we had a really interesting conversation that started over a preparation of the rice.

A detour about Hapa

One of the items on the menu was served with Hapa rice.  We’d seen this name for a type of white/wheat blend bread at Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop and I figured I’d ask what it meant.  So Kevin, who we’d just met, proceeds to give us a very real explanation of the word’s origin to refer to people who were half native Hawaiian by birth and half something else (originally White, but apparently applies much more broadly now).  He pointed out that really now it mostly just means a food item that is mixed with light and dark elements – hence the name applied to the white coconut rice dish with some brown grain I can’t remember.  He mentioned a one-time popular island band called Hapa that was made up of a Hawaiian guitarist and White singer as a way of pointing out that any negative connotation some may have assigned to the term seemed to have dissipated.  Now, to be fair, this is one man’s perspective on a complex social and cultural phenomenon—or, more correct, my faded memory of his explanation.  To be sure there are many others.  The point is just that getting these types of experiences and better understanding Maui is an important part of our time as visitors on the island.  It helps us see this place not just as a paradise and oasis from the rigors of life but a place where people have lived and cultures have evolved for thousands of years.  This wasn’t service specific to our meal, but it was definitely great service.

Return to the food

A very tasty bit of kiawe roasted pumpkin ravioli

A very tasty bit of kiawe roasted pumpkin ravioli

We added this starter and a kale salad, continuing the small plate adventure.  Who knew toasted-walnut could be such a pleasant substitute in traditional pesto?  I have grown into a very big fan of squash and squash-like product, so I expected to like this dish.  It didn’t disappoint.  If I could nitpick, I might’ve done a tad less oil, but it’s a small thing, really.  Properly cooked pasta together with good ratios of squash, chevre and pesto made for a balanced dish with excellent flavor complements.  Put this one in the “try it out” column if it’s on the menu.  As for the kale salad, I can’t really remember it.  So I won’t try.  The only way I think you can do kale wrong is either to cook it into oblivion or to fail to get some of the toughness out by undercooking.  In other words, there is a fairly broad spectrum in which to get this right.  And they did.

Over the course of the two meals we had large portions of seared ahi, nicely prepared opakapaka and a hormone-free steak cooked to a nice medium rare.  Each of these items was good enough that I’d order again.  However the reality is when you are on a vacation to a place like Maui things like spectacular service can really set a place apart and make you feel as special as the beauty on the island suggests you ought to.  My only slight disappointment is that I expect Kevin is so talented that he will have found success doing something else by the next time we come back and we may not be able to duplicate our wonderful time at Monkeypod.  Alas.  Between Kevin here, Samirah at Pineapple Grill (here) and Victor at Star Noodle (here), I was really grateful for three unique dining experiences surrounding some great food.  Memo to owners and GMs: hiring talented people makes a difference.  Cheers.  Click here to return to my index of our 10-day trip to Maui in March of 2013.

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