KAANAPALI - When dining at Japengo, I vacillate between the fresh-as-it-gets sushi and the succulent, hot Singaporean chili crab. So I order both. And, sashimi, of course, along with Korean seafood pancakes and duck pot stickers. Did I mention molten-chocolate cake for dessert? Oh yes, that's definitely part of the game plan.
As the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa's signature restaurant in Kaanapali, Japengo is now making it easier than ever to try more menu items by offering half portions of hot entrees such as the crab, the miso-glazed New Zealand salmon and China Town chow fun. Four-course prix-fixe meals are also an easy option.
While the stellar cuisine is reason enough to dine there, Japengo will also bowl you over with its ambiance, still gleaming after its $5 million renovation last year. The service is tops, too, and when you factor in nightly live music and happy-hour happenings, this West Maui hot spot is not to be missed.
Sashimi platters are an adventure in taste and always as fresh as it gets. Photos By Carla Tracy
Situated lobby level on a bluff overlooking the ocean, Japengo first beckons with its Village Alley Walk that leads to what looks like a contemporary fishing village with niches and nooks. Walk on moss-green tiles to the cool and cushy Sushi Lounge, to the Moon Bar, and to the open-air dining rooms - all with ocean and waterfall views.
The circular Moon Bar is a great place to begin your adventure with sushi plates and appetizers. Sip a specialty cocktail such as the WooWoo, and savor Happy Hour pupu such as curry-dusted calamari, hoisin-glazed pork ribs and steamed Manila clams from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Hang around for music from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. This Friday, Felicity and Herb will entertain you, followed by MondoKane on Saturday and the Kelly Covington Duo on Sunday.
The dinner menu focuses on the Pacific Rim's exotic "ring of fire" countries, all prepared with Hawaii's freshest, locally grown produce, with some fresh catch shipped in from Japan.
"Japengo is a fun, culinary adventure," says new Japengo Manager Mitch McDonald. "We've got items from Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, China and Japan. But the big mission of Hyatt hotels right now is 'thoughtfully sourced, carefully served' cuisine."
On Maui, the team really takes it to heart.
"We invited the staff to the local farms Upcountry to see firsthand of all of the hard work that goes into growing the produce," says McDonald.
On our recent visit, Japengo Lead Cook Noli Talaroc impressed us with his two nightly entree specials.
The grilled mahimahi and lobster tail combo was stacked on stunning ceramic plateware. The seafood was nestled atop garlic-fried rice with kabocha pumpkin and choi sum sauteed in garlic, shallots and butter. Talaroc also wowed us with filet and curly potatoes in a port-wine demi glace with Hamakua mushrooms.
The Hyatt's own garden grows lemongrass, basil and shiso. The chefs bring in ripe Olowalu tomatoes and Surfing Goat Dairy cheeses. The quality speaks for itself. Japengo Chef Gevin Utrillo and Sushi Chef Jay Ledee also procure only sustainable seafood. So you'll find Big Island abalone, lobster and hirame.
In addition, the Municipal Government of Japan recently brought Ledee to Tokyo, where he did a back-of-the-house tour the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Auction.
"Right now, I am started to bring in more fish from Japan," Ledee says. "Sayori is also called 'half beak,' and I'm also bringing in kohada, called 'gizzard shad.' But tuna is always the best. Only I'm not bringing in bluefin, or toro, anymore. I refuse to participate in its decimation. By 2020, there will be no more bluefin tuna in the world."
The air-conditioned sushi lounge serves the 50/50 Roll with crab, salmon, cucumber, avocado, hamachi, green onion, ponzu and lemon; and the Honolulu Roll is packed with tuna, avocado, tempura "crunchies" and more. Other specialty rolls include the Rainbow and the Tootsie, with fresh wasabi root that Ledee grates himself.
"For the Tootsie roll, we use two types of crab - soft shell and snow - lobster, fresh cucumber, shiitake mushrooms, avocado in a special sauce," he says.
Japengo is also on a roll with its Saturday Sushi Class twice a month. The next one will be from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 22.
Ledee invites guests to experience signature sushi with hands-on instruction, tasting and nonalcoholic beverages. Cost is $35 per person, plus tax and gratuity.
Besides the Saturday Sushi School, Ledee and other Hyatt chefs conduct daily cooking demos in the lobby.
"This week, we showcased fried rice," says Ledee. "We rotate with chefs from Umalu and Son'z at Swan Court."
But getting back to Japengo, mixologists have designed all the cocktails, such as the Roppongi Fling, named after Tokyo's trendiest district. You may also sip chilled premium sakes and wines. Or quench your thirst with young coconut juice. As for dessert, do try the Upcountry shortcake with Kula strawberries, lavender scone and sour whipped cream.
Or maybe the molten chocolate cake I raved about, above, or the hot malasadas with salted caramel sauce and Kona coffee ganache. I can never decide... But I do know that I'll definitely be back for more.
Live here? Kamaaina get 15 percent off of food nightly.
For reservations, call 667-4796 or visit www.mauihyatt.com.
The Lahaina News is proud to welcome Carla Tracy as a contributing writer. Carla has covered restaurants and dining on Maui for over 25 years.