Hawaiian cuisine takes a Mediterranean detour at Nick’s Fishmarket in Maui.
Strumming musician fills the air with romantic island rhythms as we walk past The Fairmont Kea Lani’s mosaic tiled lobby and down its center steps to reach Nick’s Fishmarket.
My daughter Josie and I get seated at the terrace and savor the view. Strings of light adorn the trellis above, and the awning is retracted to reveal teal skies and the stark white (kea lani means “heavenly white”) façade of the hotel. Designed by famed architect Jose Luis Ezquerra, Fairmont Kea Lani stands majestically like a Mediterranean villa that anchors the golden stretch of Polo Beach.
Nick’s Fishmarket has been a mainstay in the Maui culinary scene celebrating its 18th year since its launch in 1998, no easy feat given the oftentimes-brutal nature of the restaurant world. Helmed by veteran restaurateur Aaron Placourakis, Nick’s Fishmarket is part of TriStar Restaurant Group, which also include Sarento’s on the Beach in Kihei, Son’z Steakhouse at Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Ka‘anapali, the newly opened Manoli’s Pizza Company, plus Sarento’s at the Top of the Ilikai in Waikiki.
“It was wonderful being part of a relatively new, beautiful and lush property when they were just starting,” shares Placourakis. “Back in the day, it was not common for a freestanding restaurant to operate in a hotel. We found our niche and the most exciting thing is that we can have our independence and still be part of the team.”
Though the menu doesn’t necessarily push the envelope, executive chef Geno Sarmiento understands his clientele and delivers simple, unfussy dishes that are sourced locally and done well.
My glass of Lloyd chardonnay helps segue into dinner. It’s a refreshing start with the Maui Wowie salad—a play on the Greek chopped salad with romaine lettuce, tiger prawns, pepperoncini and kalamata olives tossed with the caper vinaigrette. Perfect slices of blackened ‘ahi rests on sake-mustard beurre blanc, avocado and papaya and mango relish and nicely topped with micro arugula. Th e homemade seafood sausage is a grilled medley of scallops, shrimp, lobster, opakapaka served with leek confit and bright Limoncello mustard vinaigrette.
For our mains, Sarmiento keeps the preparations classic. Flavors dance in an assembly of seared scallops on risotto topped with cubes of pork belly braised in adobo sauce and gremolata of frisse and micro greens, and finished with a demi glace and shavings of lemon peel. ‘Opakapaka is prepared like picatta with Moloka‘i sweet potato hash brown, broccolini and carrots on lemon-butter caper sauce. Golden brown potato scaled mahi mahi rests on steamed asparagus and truffle mash potato on cabernet beurre rouge dotted with white truffle oil. New Zealand lamb chops are tender on Moloka‘i sweet potato mash, served with a tempura ball of goat cheese on pineapple jam and jalapeno-mint vinaigrette.
As dinner unfolded to the heavier fares, I switched my chardonnay to a Willamette Valley Vineyards pinot noir. The restaurant’s award-winning cellar brims with over 500 selections scoured from 15 countries, totaling about 2,000 bottles at hand. Wine Spectator has taken notice of the restaurant’s wine offering, awarding the restaurant for its excellence 12 years in a row. General manager and sommelier Doug Mossman navigates a library that includes California cult finds Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Pouilly-Fumés wines from the late and great Didier Dagueneau of France’s Loire Valley.
“Our cuisine is not necessarily Hawaiian fusion,” says Sarmiento. “The restaurant is all about fresh, local seafood, with influences from the Mediterranean rim.”
Sarmiento grew up in the Philippines and credits his passion for cooking to his grandmother. “I was the eldest grandson,” he explains. “So she made me help her in the kitchen.” After high school, Sarmiento moved to Honolulu in 1988. “I wanted to go to college and the culinary program was just starting. I was fascinated by it.” Shortly after finishing culinary school, Sarmiento joined the company in 1992 and climbed the ranks from the kitchen pantry of Sarento’s at the Top of the Ilikai. He moved to Maui to open Nick’s Fishmarket and has grown with the company for 24 years.
“We shaped our cuisine as society changes,” says Placourakis. “In the past, proportion and value were synonymous. Forty years ago, it was deep-fried everything and smothered with some sauce. Over the years, it’s really evolved. The fancier we get, the simpler we evolve. We are letting the seafood products be the star of the show. In the last 35 years, we always were looking for the freshest proteins and ingredients. It kills me that ‘farm-to-table’ is a new thing because it’s the oldest thing. Trust me, there’s no restaurant that ever said, ‘What can we import to Hawai‘i?’”
The wonderful meal literally ended in a blaze with the flambéed strawberry panzini. A plate of chocolate-drizzled Ulupalakua Ranch strawberries was set on the table. With our plates as the canvas, he painted a flower and a surfer using brown sugar, chocolate sauce and Devonshire cream. Suddenly, a wine glass of Grand Marnier is set aflame and swirled between two glasses in some pyro-juggling action, and then finally poured over the strawberries until the alcohol is burnt off.
Nick’s Fishmarket, Fairmont Kea Lani Maui, 4100 Wailea Alanui Dr. Wailea, Maui, 808.879.7224, nicksfishmarketmaui.com