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When Brooke Lee, a Hawaiian woman, was named Miss USA in 1997, pageant experts correctly predicted she'd also take the title of Miss Universe. Their reasoning was simple: Lee's ancestry is multicultural, so her brunette good looks are at once domestic and exotic to people in several different countries. And while her smile, sense of humor, and confidence are all-American, she represents a culture about which most of the world, including the mainland United States, knows little beyond what they've seen on TV shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum, p.i. In other words, Lee engenders a good deal of curiosity about the home of leis, Don Ho, and the hula, which she performed for the talent portion of the contest.
Lighthouse Point's Maui Grille, a seven-week-old restaurant, will succeed for the same reasons. Its Hawaii Regional cuisine, which takes advantage of the islands' flora and fauna much the way New World dishes incorporate locally grown goods, is both familiar and intriguingly different. The waterfall in the corner of the 45-seat dining room, masks on the walls, bamboo window shades, and blossoming anthuriums evoke a tropical, not tacky, feel. And while executive chef Robert Lee Tischler and co-owners Stuart Hirsch and Julian Silverstang are originally from the New York City area, Tischler cooked for five years at the Maui Prince Hotel, one of the first to serve Hawaii Regional cuisine.
The Kona coffee and Kula onions also lend authenticity. In fact, most of the produce used in the restaurant comes from Hawaii's "upcountry," where volcano eruptions periodically nourish the soil. Greens from the region were included in a Kula greens salad. A sprinkle of pungent Gorgonzola cheese and firm Asian pear slices added texture to the baby lettuces, which were tossed with a fruity raspberry-macadamia vinaigrette. The same greens were stuffed inside a Mandarin chicken wrap, along with pliant chunks of grilled boneless poultry, red and yellow teardrop tomatoes, and a sweet passion fruit vinaigrette spiked with chili peppers.
Hawaii's most famous export is the pineapple. Though Costa Rica has taken over a large share of the market, most people still associate the spiky fruit with the tropical islands. Hirsch insists his pineapples are Hawaiian, and I'm inclined to believe him; the golden ring dressing up the Hana burger, which included fresh leaf spinach and mozzarella cheese, was superior. But the hamburger itself was flat and a bit greasy.
Pineapple No Ka Oi, a dessert, made more interesting use of the fruit. Wedges of pineapple were marinated and grilled in palm sugar, then laced with chocolate sauce and garnished with a scoop of mango-ginger-chili sorbet. I'm not fond of spicy ices and found this one overpowering. But I can see how the sorbet, which hits the palate sweet and leaves it zesty, might appeal to others.
The restaurant stocks other pineapple products: Maui Blanc, a wine, and Pineapple Sparkling, a champagne -- both from Tedeschi Vineyards. At $30 and $39 respectively, these perfumed vintages, pressed from fermented pineapples, are a pricey novelty. But we found the sweet, aromatic, dry wine to be a lovely accompaniment to the fruity, spicy fare.
Just as South Florida's New World cuisine is informed by our Caribbean and Latin populations, Hawaii Regional cuisine exploits its own cultural history. The Polynesians, who were the first to inhabit the islands, introduced bananas, of which there are more than 20 varieties, to the area, pulled 130 kinds of seafood from the surf, and developed 230 types of sweet potatoes.
But it's the Asian influences that capture Tischler's imagination -- and my appetite. In the middle of the 19th Century, Hawaiian plantation owners imported Chinese indentured laborers, who brought rice, sweet-and-sour glazes, and stir-fry cooking with them. Tischler's Kahana black ribs appetizer and honey-sake roast duck entree reflect these contributions. About eight ribs were candied with a passion fruit-plum concoction, a sticky sauce that underscored the succulent pork. The accompanying "pillow of upcountry wild greens" was more like a fluff of common red and Napa cabbages.
The elixir poured over the duck was a bit more intense, comprising sour cherry and passion fruit flavors. A boneless breast was prepared Peking-style and sliced into medallions, which circled a jasmine-scented scoop of rice. The crisp skin contrasted beautifully with the moist meat, and two crunchy pieces of a coconut-crusted banana fritter made for a mellow garnish. A quail appetizer, cast in a mold similar to that of the duck, had less impact. Though the meat was musky and rich, the bird's skin was too soggy. Drenching the centerpiece of macadamia-infused rice was a sour cherry-tamarind sauce that was just slightly overwhelming.
After the Chinese, the Japanese arrived in Hawaii, contributing soy sauce, miso, and tofu to the table. At Maui Grille, the Japanese influence was most apparent in the wasabi mashed potatoes served with a filet mignon. Grilled over kiawe, a kind of Hawaiian mesquite, the beef was flavorful but too well-done; we'd requested medium-rare. Crispy spinach and a Kula onion-wild mushroom sauce completed the plate with panache. But I'd like to see the meat cooked with more care.
The Vietnamese population boomed in Hawaii in the mid-'70s, and theirs has been a signifying culinary presence since then. Tischler appropriates many Southeast Asian ingredients to mold his delicious Vietnamese peanut wontons, half a dozen deep-fried packets enclosing minced chicken and peanuts. A passion fruit-chili vinaigrette moistened the won tons perfectly.
One dish, blending elements from nearly every Eastern country, was as multicultural as Brooke Lee herself. Tender, steamy opakapaka, a pink snapper imported from Hawaii, was cooked whole in a wok, set on a bed of al dente soba noodles, and doused with a just-creamy coconut-lemon grass sauce. We preferred the coconut composite to an alternate garlic black-bean sauce, which tasted more Cuban than Asian.
As for the Miss Universe pageant, Brooke Lee not only won the coveted crown, she was a credit to it (meaning she didn't plump up like pig at a luau or pose nude for a Penthouse tribute to tropical beauties). But it wasn't the hula that clinched it for her. During the interview portion of the pageant, Lee was asked what she'd do if she could perform any action without suffering consequences.
She didn't hesitate.
"I'd eat everything in the world," she replied. "I'd eat everything twice."
It's safe to say that, with the exception of the spicy sorbet, I feel the same way about the dishes at Maui Grille.
Maui Grille. 5022 N. Federal Hwy., Lighthouse Point, 954-571-7788. Lunch Tuesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday to Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Vietnamese peanut wontons
Kahana black ribs
Honey-sake roast duck
Pineapple No Ka Oi