When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When on Maui, do as the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Portuguese, Japanese and Puerto Ricans do - eat foods from their plantation era heritage.
At least that's the premise at Ko, which celebrates its grand opening Sunday after a stunning $5.1-million renovation to its al fresco spot at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui resort hotel in Wailea.
Named after "cane," or sugar cane, Ko represents the ethnic cuisines from various sugar-plantation camps, aka the "old-time neighborhoods" here.
Fairmont Kea Lani Maui’s Executive Chef Tylun Pang showcases the paella of shrimp, clams, chicken, lobster and chorizo sausage.
Fairmont Kea Lani photo
Only Ko's recipes aren't the way grandma made it at Nashiwa or Spanish B camps. They are gourmet with fun and unexpected twists on the presentations.
In addition, the look of the new Ko, where you will savor Korean-style spicy chicken, Japanese lobster tempura, Chinese cake noodle and more, is so over the top in design elements, it will just jump out and grab you.
It sure doesn't happen here very often. But every year or so, a restaurant will open on Maui with a contemporary look that is of this stellar caliber.
KO at a glance:
Hours: Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.; and bar from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Daily specials: Savor the sunset prix-fixe special of a three-course dinner from 5 to 6 p.m. Cost is $39 plus tax and tip.
Pau hana: Happy hour is from 3 to 5 p.m. and you get half off of the house drinks.
Dinner highlights: Kobe beef poke, pancit noodles, fish wrapped in ti leaves, paniolo rib-eye steak and pulehu chicken. Pastry Chef Ricky DeBoer's desserts of ginger cheesecake and shaved ice will also dazzle you.
The Ko players: Executive chef is Tylun Pang; restaurant manager, Craig Kahila; and assistant manager, Dillon Dray.
For kamaaina: Those with valid Hawaii ID will get 50 percent off food daily from 5 to 6 p.m.; and from 8 to 9 p.m. (Not available on holidays for parties of nine or more.)
Parking: Complimentary valet at hotel entrance.
For reservations: Call Ko at 875-2210 at korestaurant.com.
It happened with the opening of Japengo at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali last year and at Ferraro's Bar e Ristorante at the Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea a few years back.
The common denominator is that all three establishments were created by Maui's own Roger Gagon, a Wailuku project designer who lives and breathes the islands.
Yes, Ko is stunning after its $5.1 million renovation, and it's been packed since its soft opening earlier this month. Combined with hundreds of thousands of dollars in new plateware and gourmet foods evocative of the islands, it's now an experience that just shouldn't be missed.
"Roger does with building and materials what I do with fish and vegetables," says the resort's Executive Chef Tylun Pang, who is obviously pleased with the results. "We started with the concept a few years ago, and customers started to get it. That's why it was so easy to present the renovation plans to the ownership."
Project designer Gagon says, "We were all very fortunate to connect. The early conceptual development started in 2008 and we were delighted to have a fully Maui-based team that included civil, mechanical, design and electrical."
"In this economy and age, with all of the competition on the Mainland, this is really one of a kind."
"This brings the Fairmont Kea Lani to a whole new game," says the resort's General Manager Charles Head. "It's all about the spirit of the plantation people."
Indeed, Gagon captured it to a "T." Or should I say, "K" for Ko?
"I've lived on Maui for a long time and what I wanted was primal and regional and close to home," says Gagon. "Yet there is no thatching, no shutters and no corrugated metal in the restaurant."
Instead, you'll find a cloudlike roof that hovers above the various seating areas and the lounge. It's Vegas in magnitude, but it screams the islands all the way.
"Everyone knows Kea Lani for its arches in the lobby. The hotel is sort of an ethereal type of place. So the Ko roof needed to be dreamlike, curvilinear. I feel it is extremely harmonious with the whole resort. On a conceptual level, the roof is pretty much a floating cloud that hovers over the planet. There are very few means of support, so it exaggerates the idea that it is floating, says Gagon.
In addition, its underside reflects the culture of Maui with khakis and greens of the "aina" or "land" itself.
Honey-colored onyx lamps are in the shape of sugarcane and project a warm glow. Giant banquettes can seat up to eight people.
"The fabrics and colors are all in the spirit of the plantation era. The table tops were exported from Spain and the weaves on the walls are symbolic of grasses in the wild."
Since sugar cane is burned when it is harvested, fire elements abound. The chairs look like burnt cane, and fire urns use vegetable-based fuel that is clean, not like tiki torches.
"You'll find espresso colors like when the cane is charred and burnt," says Gagon. "We researched farms on Google Earth and laid the flooring with repetitive patterns that you find in an agricultural area."
"It's such a chicken-skin experience. It's such a romantic and sensual type of restaurant," adds Chef Pang.
Stainless-steel beads are evocative of the "wai" or rain, and when the wind blows they move. The landscaping on one side of the restaurant is eye level, so you see real sugarcane undulating and enjoy aromas of herbs that are used in the cooking process.
I had lunch there last week with my friend, who had just turned vegetarian. So I obliged her by ordering the same. We enjoyed the Mauka harvest salad of pohole fern shoots with hearts of palm, Kula baby lettuces and macadamia nuts drizzled in passion-fruit vinaigrette; and organic tofu with crisp little Kahuku sea asparagus, kaiware sprouts and ogo or seaweed in an orange-and- wasabi vinaigrette that popped.
For the entree, we split the stir-fried buckwheat soba noodles, spicy with crisp sugar-snap peas, Hamakua oyster mushrooms as well as edamame and baby-bok choy.
Of note is that Fairmont also offers vegan, heart healthy, macrobiotic and gluten-free meals. Just ask and they will show you the menus.
Meat and seafood lovers will want to try the signature lumpia Filipino spring rolls with your choice of pork and shrimp, or chicken and mushroom. Other lunch favorites are Portuguese bean soup, black-and-blue ahi, kalua pork flatbread, paniolo burgers and fresh catch.
"We use farm-to-table ingredients, many organic and raised on Maui. We try to be as sustainable as we can," says Chef Pang.
Dinner highlights include fresh catch with your choice of five preparations, ahi on the rock that you sear yourself, oishi sushi, crisp calamari, New York strip steak with crisp Maui onion rings, zarzuela of seafood and barbecue pork on skewers.
"We had a tasting last week and our general manager, Charles Head, just mauled the skewers. It's Filipino street food that comes with banana ketchup," says Chef Pang.
"It's not about fusion, or confusion cuisine. At Ko, we share the cultures and the individual ethnicities of Maui. It's not a passing fad. It's timeless and it's so romantic."