On the suggestion from one of the concierge's at the Grand Wailea, we tried out a Kihei restaurant popular with the locals and tourists called Cafe O'Lei. It sort of sounded like it could be a mix between a Hawaiian and Mexican restaurant - sort of like Tako Taco on the Big Island. But it turned out to be a nice contemporary steak and seafood restaurant that had some creative ideas for their food. We decided to have dinner there one evening.
Cafe O'Lei has been around for a number of years, but not all of them have been at the Kihei location in an upstairs spot in the Rainbow Mall on S. Kihei Road (see map). Chef/owners Michael and Dana Pastula have run five other Cafe O'Lei-style restaurants over the years working their way from the towns on the north side of Maui to the southwest side of the island. In addition to Cafe O'Lei, the Pastula's also run the Ma'alaea Grill near the harbor where we went on our whale watching tour. In addition to their restaurants, the Pastula's also own a popular catering business.
We soon found out how popular Cafe O'Lei was as we got there just after 7 p.m. and found that it would be a minimum 30 minute wait. We sort of hemmed and hawed for a moment, then decided that we would stay. The hostess stand is just inside the front door and there's a small waiting area. I asked if there was a bar inside and the hostess said there was. The only problem was that it wasn't in direct sight of the hostess stand. I told her we'd be at the bar and to not forget about us.
The circular-shaped bar in the center of the contemporary main dining room was full of people having drinks and appetizers. Some people were opting to have their dinner at the bar. Cindy has this thing about having dinner at the bar, especially in nice places - and Cafe O'Lei was a nice place. There was a large dining room with a smaller dining area in the back corner of the restaurant. In the back of the main dining room was a sushi bar which was interestingly void of any people.
We found one stool that was open at the bar and Cindy sat on that while I stood next to her. She ordered a glass of the house chardonnay and I got a Kona Big Wave Golden Ale (I'm tellin' ya - I loved that beer!). We were sort of hanging out for a while waiting for our table and talking about our day and what we were going to do the next day. There were two bartenders working - a male and a female - and they were busy as can be. And they gave off this sort of uncomfortable vibe like they weren't very friendly people.
After about 15 minutes, the male bartender comes up to us and brusquely said, "You're gonna have to move, folks."
I said, "Excuse me?"
He said, "Are you waiting for a table?"
"Yes, we are," I replied.
"Well, you're gonna have to move. We've got people who want to sit here and eat."
I looked at Cindy and then back at the bartender. "You're kidding me," I exclaimed.
He said, "No sir. We need your seat."
Cindy said, "Where are we supposed to move to?"
He looked down toward the other end of the bar and he said, "I'll set you up down there."
Another waiter brought a chair - a lower chair than what they had at the bar - and sat it down near a glass case on the end of the bar. Cindy said, "That's just stupid and plain rude. We're paying customers, aren't we?"
I said, "We must not be the right kind of paying customers."
We made our way down to the other end of the bar, but not before the female bartender screamed at me, "Sir! You have to close out your tab before you leave the bar!"
I spun around and said, "I'm not leaving! Your partner made us move! You have more important people that need our spots at that end of the bar!"
Cindy sat in this chair that barely allowed her to see the top of the bar. I was standing next to her and next to a group of people having drinks and appetizers. One of the ladies in the group said, "Did they really make you move?"
I said, "Oh, yeah. Someone more important needed our spot to eat."
She said, "Well, that was sort of rude!"
Cindy exclaimed, "I said the same thing!"
We noticed that the staff was somewhat falling all over themselves to seat the three people who took up what was really just one spot at the bar. Two more high bar chairs were produced out of nowhere by the staff and the three people - two men and a lady - sat down at the other end of the bar being greeted warmly by the bartenders and a couple of the waiters. Cindy said, "They really must be some important people."
The lady next to me said, "Naw, I recognize them. They're just some locals. Probably friends of the bartenders."
The small group next to us, three women and a man, got to talking with us. It turned out they were in management at the Wailea Marriott which was located next to our hotel. We told them we were staying at the Grand Wailea and one lady said, "Oh, yes. That's a beautiful place. We have a number of friends who work over there. The hospitality community on Maui is pretty close knit."
I will say that the bartender did comp us a free beer and a glass of wine for moving us out of our spots at the end of the bar. He still wasn't very personable about the ordeal, but the free beer and wine helped soften our feelings.
After about 40 minutes, one of the hostesses came to get us and took us into the smaller dining room in the back of the restaurant. We were seated at a small table for two. Directly behind Cindy was a refrigerated wine cabinet. While it wasn't a huge imposition, more than once while we were seated there a waiter would have to drop in behind Cindy and grab a bottle of wine.
Our waiter was originally from Colorado working in the restaurant business back there. He was the manager of a place in the mountains and he fell in love with one of his waitresses - a young Hawaiian girl who was working at his restaurant in the summertime. When she moved back to Hawaii to finish her last year of school, he sold everything, pulled up stakes and moved to Hawaii to be with her. "That was 13 years and two little boys ago," he told us.
He gave us some time to look over the menu which included a potpourri of items including steaks, lamb chops, chicken, pasta, seafood and even roast duck. There was a large number of salads and appetizers to choose from, as well. Their wine list wasn't much to be impressed with, so I just stuck with my beer for the time being, thinking that I'd get a glass of wine with my meal.
After a while, our waiter came back to check on us and we were ready to order. Cindy wasn't about to break from her tradition of having seafood at nearly every dinner so she ordered up the blackened mahi mahi served with a papaya salsa and seared in a butter-ginger sauce with Cajun seasonings. She also ordered a small Caesar salad.
I was torn between a couple three things - the Western Australia lobster tail sounded good, but Cindy pointed out to me that it was probably frozen. I also looked at getting the baked Pacific Zarzuella which featured clams, mussels, shrimp with roma tomatoes in a garlic/saffron sauce. But in the end, I decided to try the beef tenderloin medallions served with foie gras in a mushroom/cabernet sauce with shallots and thyme served with buttermilk mashed potatoes. The waiter told me the beef was grass-fed Hawaiian beef and I ordered it rare. He said, "Are you from Europe?"
I said, "No, Iowa. But I work with Europeans who love their beef rare."
He asked if I wanted a salad and I noticed they had a tomato salad on the menu. I asked if the tomatoes were from Maui and he said, "We get them from an organic farm on the east side of the island. They're wonderful." I signed up for that.
Not long after we ordered, he brought our salads out. I have to say my tomato salad was just outstanding. There is something about Hawaiian tomatoes that are so delicious. It was topped with roquefort cheese crumbles, sweet Maui onion slices and a small amount of greens. Then a basil vinaigrette was drizzled over the top. The tomatoes were sweet and juicy. Oh, man. I could have just eaten tomatoes all night.
Cindy said her Caesar salad was "pretty good". She thought the Caesar dressing was a little weak, but the salad greens were crisp and fresh.
Our main entrees came out in a timely fashion. I had two medium sized filet medallions with the mushroom/cabernet sauce on top with the foie gras and the mashed potatoes sort of sitting underneath. The tenderloins were cooked a little more medium-rare than rare, but that's OK. Better than having them more medium than medium-rare. The meat was tender and flavorful, and the mushroom/cabernet sauce was very good. There was a hint of thyme and shallots in the sauce.
The foie gras, not as good as I've had in France, was still palatable. I offered Cindy a bite of the foie gras, but she declined. "I don't know if I'd care for duck liver," she said. I told her I didn't think it sounded all that appetizing either before I had my first bite of it, but I'm hooked on good foie gras. Cafe O'Lei's foie gras was good, but not great.
Cindy really liked her blackened mahi mahi. It was light and flaky and the Cajun seasonings didn't overpower the taste. She especially liked the papaya salsa and the hint of ginger in the taste of the fish from cooking it in the butter and ginger. She had a side of steamed vegetables that she said were cooked just right. They were fresh and still had a little crispness to the bite.
Our waiter did a pretty good job with us. He was a little too chatty and that delayed his service to us and his other tables. But it wasn't anything that was out of line. The place was busy and he was working the tables for a better tip, I'm sure.
When we returned to the hotel, our favorite valet was waiting for us to take our car. He said, "Where did you guys go tonight." We told him Cafe O'Lei and he asked how we liked it. Cindy said, "It was good. It wasn't the best we've had, but it was good."
He told us, "Did you get the recommendation from the concierges? I don't know what they have going on with Cafe O'Lei, but they seem to steer a lot of people toward that place."
He said that while Cafe O'Lei was good, there were other restaurants that he thought were better. And he gave us the name of one that he highly recommended and which we tried on our last night on Maui. That entry will come up next week, saving the best for the last blog entry on our visit to Hawaii.