LAHAINA - A green sea turtle popped its head out of the water. We were a rubber slipper's toss away, close enough to make eye contact. Seated at Honu Seafood & Pizza right on a black lava outcropping, we munched complimentary fried chick peas and sipped cold Belgian beer and stellar California pinot noir. "Honu" means "turtle" in Hawaiian, and the ocean fronting the restaurant is their playground. So it was no surprise to get a sighting or two or three as we laughed, talked and tossed the addicting chick peas into our mouths and watched multiple honu surf in-shore waves.
Situated at 1295 Front St., next to its sister restaurant, Mala Ocean Tavern, Honu also dishes up 180-degree views of moored boats at the Lahaina Roadstead, the islands of Lanai and Molokai, and lots of humpback whale action this time of year.
But regulars know it's all about the food. It's about the aloha. And, it's about the casual air, like an old, renovated New England crab shack, where you may wear shorts and T-shirts and feel perfectly at home. In fact, the menu's theme may loosely be described as "Cape Cod meets Maui."
Honu Seafood & Pizza is a family affair for acclaimed chef Mark Ellman.
Acclaimed chef Mark Ellman and his wife, Judy Ellman, are veteran restaurateurs and owners of this popular family business that opened mid 2011. Daughters Ariana Guarnier and Michelle Ellman serve as managers of both Honu and Mala.
"The building was constructed in the 1930s and was the Local Motion surf store before we bought it," says Ellman about the sixth restaurant he's owned on Maui. His other properties have included Avalon, where he catapulted to worldwide acclaim as one of 12 original Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs; Maui Tacos, which he sold as a national franchise with Shep Gordon; Penne Pasta; Maui Dogs; and Mala Wailea, the latter he still owns with Gordon and superstars such as Clint Eastwood and Alice Cooper.
"At Honu, we've custom built all of the tables, used rocks from Bali, stones from Indolotus Imports," says Ellman. "Our eco-friendly kirei-board bar is constructed out of reclaimed sorghum wheat. The structure's got a tall clerestory that infuses soft light from above, the front is all open to the ocean, and it features whimsical art by Capt. Kenny Neizman, a local character who used to push a shopping cart around town."
Walk in the door, and you'll see a little nook with Capt. Kenny souvenirs, Ellman's "Practice Aloha" book and Honu T-shirts, and a crab tank filled with live crustaceans. Make sure to ask for a free "Practice Aloha" bumper sticker.
The Honu concept was inspired by Ellman's world adventures. "Judy and I love to travel, and we love going out to eat," says Ellman, whose most recent trip was to Shanghai. "In the Bay Area, the first thing we do is go for oysters, crab, great wines and beer."
Oyster lovers may savor at least three types. When we dined there, live Fanny Bay, Steamboat, Kumamoto and Sweetwater oysters were presented. You may order them fried, in a sandwich, just like the Ipswich clams from Maine. Or go for the Hangtown Fry, a San Francisco favorite omelet with organic scrambled eggs, oyster, shallots and bacon. We went for glistening Kumamotos raw on the half shell and topped them with mignonette. They made me forget the turtle and concentrate on what to order next.
As someone who dines out regularly, I am tired of seared sashimi and coconut-crusted shrimp. So I love Honu's departure from the Maui seafood norm.
"We fly in our Spanish octopus," he says. "Because this particular species has the highest fat content - like bluefin tuna. It's extremely tender." When served with olive oil and garlic, edamame hummus, mojo verde and flaxseed toast, it's out of this world.
We also dove headfirst into the rock shrimp and sea asparagus ala plancha. Small and nicely textured, the Gulf shrimp are flash cooked in a wok, and the sea greens give it the right crunch.
Chef Michael Greenstreet will also impress you with fresh dungeness crab Louie, clam chowder, steamed Mediterranean mussels, and whole wok-fried opakapaka. He will wow you with meat items such as fried pig's ear, pork shank Osso Buco with the best grits on the planet, grilled Kobe beef flatiron steak, and lamb riblettes with Greek yogurt sauce. Ellman walks around, offering his aloha to visitors and regulars alike, bussing tables and bringing out dishes from the kitchen and handcrafted cocktails such as the Cucumber Breeze from the bar.
Pizza lovers may order spicy Italian sausage or Alii mushroom pies hot out of an impressive brick oven that cooks at 700 degrees in about three to four minutes. The thin Naples-style crusts are made with double zero flour and topped with canned Naples tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese.
Honu boasts 26 seats at the bar and pours 65 beers, mostly organic and microbrews, two gluten-free. Boutique wines by the bottle are categorized into a range of prices from $20 on up, in $10 increments. "I also have an emphasis on scotch, rum and tequila selections," Ellman says.
Honu Pastry Chef Elizabeth McDonald was recently recognized at the Halekulani on Oahu at the Rising Stars Awards Banquet along with other top culinarians, sommeliers and mixologists from around the country. She bowled over tasters with her vegan and gluten-free chocolate-mousse cake.
"We bake our own brioche buns with chia and flax for nutritional purposes," says Ellman. "Remember the Chia Pets back in the day? We go through 30 pounds of chia seeds per month. Chefs have a lot more responsibility nowadays to put less butter and cream and use better ingredients."
Overall, Honu Seafood & Pizza comes highly recommended for a fun and casual lunch or dinner. Kamaaina get 10 percent off food for both services.
The 100-seat Honu is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., except on Sundays when it closes at 9 p.m. For reservations or more details, call 667-9390 or visit www.honumaui.com.