KAHANA - "Stella's got her groove back!" Executive Chef Alex Stanislaw enthused as he approached our table at the new Kahana Grill.
"Yes, I'm talking about me," said the well-known West Maui culinarian, grinning from ear to ear. He's back, smack dab in the middle of a happening new restaurant, just months after selling his interest in Plantation House in Kapalua, where he was chef-partner for 21 years.
"I took some time off. Decompressed. Relaxed. I got to know my wife again," he said. "Then I decided to drop off my resume here as I live right across the street. The fit is right - has been from the very start. Kahana Grill may be the new kid on the block, but this is the block where it's all happening."
Owner Ken Murray showcases housemade Big Island tamarillos that the restaurant chef makes into sauces and more, along with kalua pork quesadillas and Phi Phi shrimp won tons.
After checking it out, we found Kahana Grill to be happening, indeed.
"Owner Ken Murray has created a very comfortable and inviting neighborhood restaurant," he continued. "He took Roy's, a well-known space at Kahana Gateway, and made it even better. I love the expanded bar seating, the addition of a sushi bar, and the fact that he added seats along our showcase kitchen, so you can get a real bird's eye view of our chefs in action."
It also now sports a koa canoe hanging from the vaulted ceilings, colorful original art and a banquet room for private parties.
"We've created a neighborhood joint. Not a special occasion place. We have pizzas. Small plates to share. Large plates, too. It's a hangout. We want people to come in here all of the time, and that's just what they're doing," Stanislaw said.
As diners around us socialized and laughed, they dug into brick-oven pizza, crunched shrimp won tons and savored kalua pork quesadillas. Of course, wine, beer and cocktails flowed.
"We take a lot of pride in our cocktails," said Ken, who insisted we try a Murray Manhattan, specially concocted with Ri Whiskey, Antica vermouth and dark Amarino cherries imported from Italy. It was off the charts in taste and a great start to our meal.
"Jaime Wong is our mixologist and bar manager. She makes her own Orgeat syrup for our mai tais," said Ken. "She does a great job, with bold and fresh flavors."
As we settled in, Ken told us he hails from Los Gatos in Silicon Valley, Calif., where he launched numerous high-tech start-up companies.
"I wanted a second career, so I bought into Downhill Winery, a cooperative with six families. As much as I love wine, owning a winery wasn't for me. I'd never owned a restaurant before, and decided to run some demographics on this place as my wife and I've had a second home here for five or six years. And viola, here I am!"
Murray said he conducted quite a search all over the Mainland for the right chef - then Alex walked in the door. Originally from New York, Stanislaw is an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America there. Back in the day, he was recruited by Rock Resorts for a culinary position on Maui at Kapalua Bay Hotel.
"It was here that my love of Hawaiian fish began," said the former "Best Chef on Maui" in The Maui News. "I also worked as executive chef at Erik's Seafood Grotto, where I developed close relationships with local fishermen and fish purveyors."
Alex likes to "blend the clean flavors of the ocean with the rustic simplicity of warm weather cuisines." Share bowls of clams with mussels, lemongrass, garlic and Chinese black beans in sake broth. Munch fresh ahi tartare with micro basil and lemon oil. And, rave about his green Thai curry seafood on noodles.
Meat lovers may sink their teeth into double New Zealand lamb chops, pan roasted with rosemary and garlic; crispy duck confit with vanilla-whipped Molokai sweet potatoes; and baby-back ribs with tamarillo sauce made in house.
Alex perfected the menu. Former Longhi's Pastry Chef Rene Smith put a gourmet spin on the desserts. All Ken needed was a top-notch general manager - and in walked Michael Butler, former GM of Fleetwood's on Front St.
"Once Michael was in place to run the front of the house, it was all solidified," said Ken. "So now I can go around every night, greeting the guests. We also utilize Apple technology, so servers punch in the orders on their iPads and it appears instantly in the kitchen, so they don't have to run back and forth with order tickets."
Kahana Grill is open daily for lunch, dinner, late night and special events.
"We have a lot going on at Kahana Grill," Michael told us as we indulged in the signature bread - flaky like puff pastry and aromatic with rosemary, thyme and flax seeds.
"We offer fish specials in addition to the regular menu every night. Same with pizza," Michael continued. "We feature winemaker dinners once a month. Four or five wines are paired with courses created by chef Alex, and it's hosted by the winemaker from the winery."
Earlier this month, Steven Storrs from Storrs Wines in Santa Cruz was the guest of honor.
"It was a big hit and everyone asked, 'when's the next one?!' " said Michael. "Right now we're talking to wine reps to see who will be on island. I know that we've talked about Bruce Cohn for one of the wine dinners."
Kahana Grill also gets jumping with its live music lineup.
"Thursday, we have Johnny Ringo with acoustic guitar from 7 to 9 p.m. Pau Hana Friday features live jazz from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Last week we had over 40 people come out for it. Saturday we have Ray Gooliak on acoustic guitar from 7 to 9 p.m. and then Garrett Probst and Damion Emerson from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. for Late Night," Michael said.
Regular happy hour jumps from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily and late night happy hour runs Thursday to Saturday from 10 p.m. to midnight. Happy Hour includes food as well as drinks.
For more details or reservations, call 669-4000 or visit www.kahanagrill.com.