One night, after a full day of driving up and around Maui on mostly unpaved gravelly car sickness-inducing dirt trails (I actually missed the dirty New York subways in Hawaii), we came upon Mama’s Fish House. From the name, I had expected the restaurant to be a small homey establishment, but it was actually a bit fancy in the island resort type of way. And the place was packed. We were told there was a forty minute wait without reservations, but we were tired of driving, and decided to wait it out at the bar. When I told our waitress I hadn’t expected the restaurant to be a place where you had to make reservations, she informed me that it was five-star restaurant and reservations were always necessary. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘five-star, let’s see what you’ve got.’
At the bar I got a Mai Tai ($16). I was in Hawaii, so I figured something with an umbrella was in order. It was decent cocktail with a nice orange edge, but $16 was a bit much. Perhaps I’m a bit spoiled, but a good cocktail in New York runs around $13, and even at Painkiller, a tiki-inspired bar on the Lower East Side without the tourist bullsh*t, the drinks run around $13-$16, with those in the upper range having enough alcohol to cure/kill all that ails you. Mama’s Mai Tai was good, but not worth $16.
Mid-drink, they moved us to a table. The bar area wasn’t bad, but a table was much appreciated. Dinner soon began with an amuse bouche: carrot tomato bisque. It was creamy, smooth, and hot. A very nice start.
For his appetizer, David ordered the Ahi Sashimi Salad ($25), tuna sashimi with fried wonton strips, mixed greens, crumbled wasabi goat cheese, and roasted sesame seeds tossed in a Maui honey and Dijon mustard dressing. A light bright salad with a lot of texture, it was quite delicious. The wasabi was mild, but the tanginess of the goat cheese made up for it in flavor. Size-wise it was much larger than expected. The restaurant may be 5-star, but the portions definitely didn’t reflect that.
For my appetizer, I chose the Ahi Poke ($16). Ahi poke is a regional specialty in Hawaii. Made with raw yellowfin tuna, it’s similiar to sashimi, but comes diced and dressed in a mixture of soy sauce, raw onions, chili pepper, kukui nut, seaweed, and sesame oil. Mama’s poke — made with sweet Maui onions and lots of spicy red pepper that made my Korean mouth burn — was the best I had throughout the whole trip. It was also the most expensive, but considering how much I enjoyed it, it was well worth it.
Poi (mashed corm of the taro plant), another ubiquitous Hawaiian dish, came free with our appetizers. It was my first time eating poi, and the waitress seemed apprehensive I wouldn’t like it, but it was pretty good. It reminded me of melted tapioca. It was definitely subtle in taste, but for a person who likes tapioca and rice cake, it wasn’t too weird. Later in the trip, I came to realize that Mama’s version was definitely more bland. Poi elsewhere, even when fresh, had a sour note Mama’s did not. Mama’s was also less viscous in texture. Both styles I liked, but I probably prefer Mama’s. The waitress suggested dipping the hot poke into the poi, but I was quite happy eating it alone with a spoon.
Our entrées were less successful, so I’ll keep it brief. I had the Stuffed Fish ($48), mahi-mahi baked in a macadamia nut crust and stuffed with lobster, crab, and Maui onion. I never like stuffed meats of any kind because the stuffing is usually so fine you can hardly taste anything and the protein (the stuffee) is most often overcooked in efforts to thoroughly cook the innards. Nevertheless I ordered it anyway because the waitress mentioned it was what the restaurant was known for. Big mistake. Sometimes it’s best to trust your gut, your own stuffing. They did a good job with the macadamia nut crust at least. It was browned well and crunchy.
After a few bites, I traded my fish for David’s Uku ($44), which was much better. It was fresh fish, caught that day, grilled and served in a light wine sauce with tomatoes and capers. Simple is sometimes best, especially since it’s harder to screw up. Stick to the fish in the “Today’s Fish” section at Mama’s. There’s a choice of at least three, so you can choose the type of fish you want.
We were too full for dessert, so the meal ended with haupia, as most meals in Hawaii do. Haupia is like coconut gelatin. I could eat slabs and slabs of it. The mignardise-sized haupia at Mama’s were lovely. Not too sweet, not too hard, and with bits of toasted coconut. It almost made up for my main course, almost… I would have needed a lot more mini-haupias for that to happen.
Dinner at Mama’s Fish House wasn’t bad. The appetizers, poi, and haupia were fabulous. The rest, over-priced resort fare. Service however was exceptional. Our waitress couldn’t have been nicer. If I ever go back, I’ll be keeping it simple, and drinks I’ll be having elsewhere.