Maui has been a desert wasteland for Indian cuisine. Fresh fish we have in abundance. Great passionfruit sauces are easy to come by. Fusion of Eastern and Western cooking styles, no problem. Indian food, forget it! Over the past eight years, a few Indian-themed dining establishments have come and quickly gone, with food too forgettable to recall, that have provided fleeting and less-than-satisfying respite from a seemingly eternal drought of properly blended spices.
The only way to find soulful curries was to be lucky enough to get invited to dinner at someone’s house, fly to O’ahu and poke around the University district, or voyage across the pond to the Mainland, Europe or mother India herself. Many dedicated fans of Indian cuisine who live on Maui have satisfied their intense cravings through any or all of these heroic methods.
Just a few months ago, I was on a multi-city business trip on the Mainland. While I didn’t make the trip just for Indian food, I did eat at an Indian restaurant every day in each city I visited. Seattle may be famous for fresh salmon and apples, but unless they were tandoored, I didn’t bother. Dallas is known for big hunks of grilled meat and deep-fried anything, but unless those items were curried, I didn’t sit down.
With caution, my partner and I ventured last night with a few discerning and desperate friends to Maui’s newest Indian restaurant, Shangri-La By the Sea, located in Kihei in the Menehune Shores condo complex. Not wanting to face the same disappointment as we did with all of Maui’s previous Indian eateries, we kept our expectations low. It would be just fine as long as the tandoored chicken wasn’t floating in a pool of orange oil, but even that might not be so bad if tasted okay.
We were blown away. For eight people, we ordered four appetizers, seven entrees, three breads and rice. We started with samosas, pakoras, tandoored meats, and papadum. Those were served with fresh mint and tamarind chutneys. We devoured them without comment–a good sign among food critics wanting to be pleased.
With the entrees, the chef at Shangri-La did not make the usual amateur mistakes of using too much heavy cream or oil. Instead, the spices in the mahkni, korma and vindaloo were perfectly blended into pleasing textures and flavors. Even the bhindi masala, the usual low-water mark at Indian eateries, tasted savory with pleasingly firm okra–far from the slimy green dish found in most “curry in a hurry” joints . The breads were light, fluffy and flavorful. We ooed and awed over the pratha, a bread often so laden with oil that it seems deep-fried , which came out of Shangri-La’s tandoor oven like a delicately buttered French pastry.
We washed their delicacies down with bottles of riesling that we brought with us. Shangri-La is new enough that they don’t yet have a liquor license. This means that for the next few months, it will be possible to pair the best Alsacian whites with their savory, spicy dishes at bargain prices.
When it was time for desert, we passed. Too full to take another bite, we decided to save desert for next time. Thankfully, there will be a next time without buying a plane ticket.
Sunil, Shangri-La’s friendly owner, shook our hands after dinner and mentioned that he also owns two other Indian restaurants in Anchorage, Alaska. Happy to escape winter, he has brought some much needed heat to Maui. This foodie hopes he’ll stay.
Shangri-La By The Sea
760 S. Kihei Road. Suite 109
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun. to Thurs. 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.;Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.