Hali'imaile General Store
Restaurant in Maui
Hawaiian Regional Cuisine Restaurant
Hawaiian food has come a long way from mixed plates (anchored by Spam and macaroni salad) and the touristy fine dining, largely sourced from the mainland. (Of all the things you could eat in Hawaii, you'd pick Maine lobster?)
Today, Hawaiian regional cuisine is exploding in popularity. No matter where on the island you stay, an exciting new restaurant with its own signature twist on Maui's startling agricultural richesse is within easy reach.
Meanwhile, the OG bastion of local cuisine keeps doing just as they always have, in a hundred-year-old building tucked between two pocket communities at the base of Mount Haleakala
A side road from either Paia or Makawao towns takes you through an undulating sugarcane field to a clapboard building painted butter yellow, standing alone in a dirt lot, across the street from a car detailing shop and a pineapple stand. Built in 1925 as a general store for agricultural workers, the building was taken over by a local caterer whose business was outgrowing her home kitchen. In short order, “the store” (as it is locally known) gained an island-wide following, and Chef Bev Gannon is now one of Maui’s powerhouse restauranteurs.
Hali’imaile General Store maintains a bare-bones approach to décor – my friend jokingly calls it "shabby-Cheeseburger in Paradise-chic." And if you arrive right on time for happy hour, you might again have misgivings about the recommendations you've heard. The atmosphere is cheerful but sleepy, making you wonder if all the locals prefer a beer in their hammock to the bar.
And then something like the Ho'olepo Moana martini arrives at your table. Made with sharp pickled onions and black sea salt that pull an unexpected sweetness out of the locally distilled Ocean Vodka, the drink is a golden, seaweed-spiked haze that belies the punch it packs. Not for the faint of heart, this dirtiest of dirty martinis will awaken your palate and renew your sense of adventure. Halfway through it, you'll realize that while you were drinking, everyone in town (seemingly) has arrived for dinner. The rest of the night follows in convivial fashion, as laid-back as a family barbecue and as exciting as the first time you tried fondue.
The menu is ample without being redundant, the hardest kind to choose from. We trusted ourselves to the expertise of our waitress, Katie, and she did not disappoint. The meal proceeded like a beauty pageant, each item showing up the last in a display of beauty, virtue and intrigue.
The shishito peppers we started with were buttery and blistered with togarashi, the local variant of herbes de Provence, a mixture of red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, nori flakes, and microfine-shredded orange zest.
The beef carpaccio was stellar – hearty of flavor and delicate of texture – crusted with piment d'espilette, rimmed by curry chickpea aioli, and served with a salad of shaved asparagus, arugula and poached egg that made it more than enough to share. But it had stiff competition from the tomato and watermelon salad, a combination of steaky tempura-fried green tomatoes, red and yellow heirlooms, and crisp but deep-flavored watermelon, sprinkled with feta cheese and laced with walnut pesto.
The friend who accompanied me suffers from the full spectrum of food allergies; she confided to me that Hali'imaile General Store is the only mainstream restaurant on Maui where she doesn't find the food or presentation suffers from being prepared gluten or dairy-free. I had to agree, when I tried her coconut seafood curry, a Hawaiian-style bouillabaisse with fresh island fish, candy-sweet scallops, cashews, lemongrass pesto, all steamed in coconut milk that made it as rich and creamy as fettuccine alfredo.
But I wasn't at all sorry not to share my sashimi Napoleon, a dish uniformly heralded with raving praise wherever it is mentioned in print. Our waiter called it “deconstructed sushi," but if we're going with art terminology, it's more of a postmodern pastiche: a layered tower of ahi tartare, smoked salmon, crisp wontons, pickled ginger, microgreens and caviar. It's brought to the table, allowed for a moment to elicit sighs and gasps, then unceremoniously crushed under the server's spoon and drizzled with wasabi vinaigrette.
Our final act was the dessert of the day – a lilikoi crème brûlée served in an almond flour shell. I confess that I don't much like crème brûlée beyond the opportunity to crack the crust, and only enjoy lilikoi (or passionfruit) when it comes directly from the tree. A tentative taste of the dessert completely won me over – the custard is more of a thick, airy mousse, and the flavor is balanced and rich, rather than cloying.
Much like a mountain bike ride down the volcano, a drive around the Road to Hana, or sunning on a black-sand beach, a visit to Hali'imaile General Store is an essential part of experiencing Maui. No matter where you stay on the island, make the drive – it's emphatically worth it.
Chelsea Batten is an itinerant journalist and photographer
Photography by Chelsea Batten
|Reviewer's Rating||★ ★ ★ ★ ★|
|Need to book||Advisable|
|Clientele||Locals and tourists alike|
|Restaurant good for||Couples, Romance, Bar scene, Small groups, Meeting up with friends|
|Cost per head||High|
|Dining Options||Lunch, Dinner|
Farm-fresh, locally-focused menu with gently reinvented local favorites and nods to pan-Asian cuisine. Casual, laid-back atmosphere; knowledgeable and chatty staff.
Starters from $14; Mains from $30 and wine from $38 a bottle.
Last updated on 05-09-2014