KAANAPALI - If you think you've done it all on the dining scene in Lahaina, think again. One of the West Side's gems that is somewhat hidden from a resident's perspective is Pulehu, an Italian grill, in the North Tower enclave of The Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas.
This charming dinner restaurant has it all: convenient, free parking; a cool, tranquil setting by a water garden; fabulous fresh fare; an exciting wine list; and full-service bar. Pulehu offers specials for local residents that I'll get to later, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere with professional servers who make you feel like royalty.
Why the name? Pulehu is a Hawaiian word that refers to cooking over an open flame, especially meats and root vegetables. Pulehu's menu is a tribute to that style of cooking while incorporating old-world Italian cuisine with farm-fresh local products.
Pulehu Chef Wesley Holder and Manager James Hansen toast the new year. PHOTO BY KAREE CARLUCCI.
I asked Executive Sous Chef Wesley Holder about his philosophy of cooking.
"I try to keep it simple and do it right; I keep the sauces light, so you can taste what's going on, and highlight the main ingredient," he said.
Chef Wes supports the younger farmers in West Maui who are using sustainable farming practices. He explains that there are several new farms popping up, and he uses their produce almost exclusively. Heirloom tomatoes in vibrant colors, crisp micro-greens, fish and lobsters from Maui waters, and wild shrimp from the cold, deep waters around Kauai are some of the local choices he places on his menu.
My partner Tom and I are big fans of Italian cooking and were looking forward to trying the chef's cuisine. We started with Local Vine Ripe Caprese salad of red and yellow tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, Kula onions and micro basil drizzled with balsamic syrup. The slight tartness of the cheese highlighted the lush tomatoes and balanced the sweet onions and tangy balsamic. We enjoyed the salad with grilled rustic bread slices slathered with garlic herb butter. Chef Wes makes his own breads and recently introduced a 200-year-old sourdough starter, which his family brought from Poland, to some of his recipes.
He also makes gnocchi with island sweet potatoes, a new dish that won top honors at the recent Kaanapali Fresh event. Chef Wes' Tortellini en Brodo, a house-made ricotta tortellini served with Surfing Goat Dairy cheese and caramelized Maui onions in Maui Cattle beef consomme, was awarded first place at this year's Maui Onion Festival.
Pulehu's menu is replete with choices from antipasti, including Italian deli meats, to zuppa made with roasted tomatoes, wood-fired thin crust pizzas with island grown toppings, and a wide array of signature primi piatti (main plates).
For our entrees, we chose the Chianti Braised Short Ribs, which the chef slow cooks to a tenderness so perfect, it almost melts in your mouth. Upcountry root vegetables surround the meat in a creamy polenta sauce. The Risotto Crusted Pesce presented a new twist to a fresh island fish dish: the risotto was slightly crunchy and the basil-pesto, citrus butter sauce infused the fish and roasted veggies with earthy zest.
The wine experience really punctuated the meal, and Pulehu Restaurant Manager James Hansen makes it fun. He begins with a water game, using Fresh, a green alternative to bottle water that is purified 60 times. It refreshes the palate so subtle flavors of the wine are enhanced. Jim is very knowledgeable about wines, particularly those from South America. He has developed a global list, divided into 15 sections, featuring well-known and unusual wines from the old world and new.
Jim explained, "We don't follow any rules. We like to be ahead of the curve and find new, cutting edge wines that you can't always buy in the stores. We also host wine dinners to establish relationships between the winemaker, restaurant and our customers."
His slogan for the wine list is "quaff with abandon," and we did on a bold Chilean wine that we wouldn't have found anywhere else. One of the special offerings Jim and Wes have put together is a weekly wine tasting class. Each Monday at 5 p.m., Jim presents three wines and Wes prepares a special appetizer to go with them. The cost is only $20 per person, and the lighthearted tone turns it into a party.
Another thing that you should enjoy with abandon is dessert! Chef makes his "dolci" specialties in-house, like Tiramisu lady fingers with mascarpone, Tahitian vanilla creme brulee, and Waialua Dark Chocolate Tart topped with sea salt and seasonal berries. The now Lahaina-based Zia Maria's provides artisan gelato and sorbetto choices.
Hansen invites you to "experience this dining room, the cuisine and wines. We really take care of the locals. Hawaii residents always receive a 25 percent discount, and on Thursdays after 8 p.m., you can take advantage of 50 percent off the menu."
I plan to go back and hope to see you there. Pulehu is open five days a week, Thursday through Monday. The entire staff takes two days off for renewal - a wise concept that works. For reservations, call 667-3254 or visit www.WestinKaanapali.com.
(Karee Carlucci has lived and worked in Lahaina for 24 years. Writing about Maui activities, dining and history is one of her passions.)