Issue 7.1: February/March 2004

Eat, Drink and Be Airy

story by Deborah Gushman
photos by
Dana Edmunds

The Diamond Resort's
Le Gunji restaurant.

When I lived in Tokyo years ago, I would have sworn that the idea of sushi with a view was a contradiction in terms. None of the sushi shops I patronized in Ryogokyu and Yurakucho and Fukuzawa had a single window, much less a view. They were, in essence, exquisitely appointed wooden boxes, and the eye-feasts they offered were composed of decor (handwoven indigo cotton cushions, beautifully calligraphed scrolls, blue-and-white-patterned ceramics) and food (glass cases filled with fishy still lifes, jars of translucent pink ginger slices and, of course, the work-of-art sushi itself). Even in Honolulu, most of the sushi restaurants I’d visited over the years had, at best, a window or two looking out onto a busy street scene, a parking lot or a minimal rock garden.

It doesn’t take much to send me off on a quixotic quest, and when a sushi-fanatic colleague in Honolulu mentioned that there were several exceptional sushi restaurants on Maui with dazzling views, I was suddenly filled with the desire to see this phenomenon for myself. So on a recent whirlwind trip to the Valley Isle, I took several scenic detours to visit the sushi spots my friend had raved about.

First stop: the astonishing, off-the-beaten track Diamond Resort, tucked away in the hills overlooking the Wailea coastline. Who knew that being so far from the beach could be so beguiling? The resort, which has the ambience of a high-class mountain lodge, was originally built by a Japanese corporation for Japanese guests. It is now open to everyone, but it retains a uniquely Japanese feel, from the luxurious ocean-view ofuro (traditional baths) to the straw tatami floor mats in some rooms."It’s very artsy," said the hotel’s director of food and beverage, Doug De Cambra, pointing at the gigantic Miro tapestry that adorns an equally monumental stone wall in the Le Gunji restaurant. This tapestry is a copy; the original, valued at $3 million, is at the corporation’s headquarters in Japan.

Restaurant Taiko, the Diamond’s sushi mecca, has a view of a serenely elegant waterfall-fed koi pond, but patrons have only to turn their heads to see the panorama of endless sea and sky—and the island of Moloka‘i—that fills the windows of the restaurant beyond. The sushi bar is the longest on Maui; all the chefs are from Japan and honed their chops in the rigorous Japanese apprentice system (that is, by studying every aspect of sushi-making, from choosing fish at the Tsukiji Fishmarket at dawn to cooking and seasoning the rice just so).

The most popular items on Taiko’s vast sushi menu are the soft-shell crab roll, the Hawaiian roll and the aigamo, or duck-breast sushi, which originated here. The Diamond’s chefs make their own pickled ginger, which is served in specially made dishes trimmed with 14K gold.

After saying "sayonara" to the Diamond Resort, I coasted down the hill to the Grand Wailea, an opulent extravaganza of a hotel. Even so, I was unprepared for the medieval grandeur of Kincha, the resort’s Japanese restaurant.

The Kincha complex is like a small, atmospheric city, with stone floors, bridges, waterfalls, sudare screens and a maze of lovely private dining rooms (each one with its own poetic name, like the rooms in a Japanese inn) furnished with black lacquer tables. It feels rather like a modern-medieval stage set, an effect enhanced by kimono-clad greeters bowing the guests into this Kyoto-flavored wonderland. The restaurant was constructed in Japan, then disassembled, shipped to Maui and reassembled here. Not a single nail was used in the construction—it’s all tongue-and-groove.

Throughout the labyrinthine restaurant you hear the subtly restful sound of water, like the harpsichord continuo in a Baroque concerto. Water is an important part of the atmosphere and mystique of the Grand Wailea; there are twelve employees whose sole duties are taking care of the resort’s myriad ponds, pools and salt water lagoons.

I looked at the curving sushi bar and tried to picture it on a busy Saturday night peopled with sophisticated patrons—pouring each other delicate cups full of high-end sakes, perhaps, between bites of the sushi roll known as "The Bomb," a creation unique to Kincha. The Bomb, all the more delicious because it isn’t listed on the menu, is like a modified California roll made with shrimp tempura, avocado, unagi (eel) and cucumber, with tobiko (flying fish eggs) on top.

While some of the private tatami rooms look out on artistic rock walls or tranquil carp ponds, at Kincha, I realized as I left, the exquisitely fashioned restaurant is the view—and vice versa.

The sun was setting by the time I arrived at my next-to-last destination, the Kaanapali Marriott. The hotel’s sushi restaurant is called Nalu ("wave," in Hawaiian) and it is surely one of the best places to savor those famously vivid Maui sunsets. There is a view of Lanai and Kahoolawe, low mounds of land rising out of the sparkling cerulean sea, and closer in, of Kaanapali Beach, in all its white-sand, palm-fringed perfection. While I watched, the sky gave an advanced seminar in the glorious permutations of pink and orange, with some subtle, painterly streaks of purple, gold and charcoal thrown in for good measure.

Tables with high stools—something not often seen in sushi restaurants—give Nalu the feel of a Parisian bistro. Of course, you can also sit at the counter and order such specialties as the extremely tasty "Jaws" (California roll topped with spicy scallops), or the "Paia Bay" (asparagus, cucumber, radish sprouts and yamagobo, or mountain burdock).

Kai sushi bar

By the time I arrived at the Ritz-Carlton’s Kai sushi bar, recommended as another prime sunset-viewing spot, it was dark and all I could see, beyond the windows, were tiki torches flickering in the wind and a luminous turquoise swimming pool fringed with palm trees.

Norio Yamamoto is the Ritz-Carlton’s sushi chef, but he does far more than crank out impeccable sushi. Trained in Tokyo in the traditional way, Yamamoto is a gifted all-around chef. Unlike some transplanted sushi masters, he is adept at conversing wittily with guests (he has lived on Maui since 1991, and his English is so good that people mistake him for a local) and at explaining Japanese cuisine to uninitiated patrons.

Yamamoto considers himself a traditionalist. "Of course, I make Rainbow Roll," he said. "But I don’t want to get too Westernized." Everything he put in front of me that night was a revelation: tuna tataki (tender, barely seared ‘ahi striped with garlic mayonnaise); an "oyster martini" (like The Bomb, another off-menu treat); an exotic seaweed salad with sesame vinaigrette; baked-scallop sushi, warm and buttery.

After the sublime appetizers came a cavalcade of perfect sushi. Tuna sushi is the most popular thing on the menu, Yamamoto told me, and while it was extraordinarily good, I also enjoyed revisiting my old favorites from student days in Tokyo: kappa-maki (cucumber roll, garnished with sesame seeds), natto-maki (made with pungent fermented soybeans), and shiso-ume maki (a roll sparked by the pungent flavors of the perilla leaf and pickled ume plums).

While Yamamoto worked his magic behind the counter, I gazed speculatively out the window behind him. I thought there was probably an ocean view, but I would have to wait until the next morning to find out for sure.

Shortly after sunrise, on my way to the airport, I ducked into the deserted sushi bar and saw a stunning view of the sea beyond great spidery stands of ironwood trees, with the illuminated turquoise flower of the swimming pool in the foreground. The air was loud with what I thought was first-light birdsong—loud, sharp, sweet and brilliant—but then a passing waiter told me that the musical chorus was made up of tiny frogs. Sushi with a view, they seemed to be singing. Who knew?