Going with the Flow at Nalu’s South Shore Grill
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For Ron Panzo, like so many here on Maui, it starts and ends with the ocean.
“Surfing was always my love, the ocean, and working in a restaurant at night and being able to spend my time in the water during the day was just like the perfect lifestyle,” says Panzo.
He’s dedicated more than 40 years of his life to the restaurant industry, involved in big-name spots like Nick’s Fish Market in Waikiki, Sarrento’s on the Beach in Kihei, and Lulu’s on both Maui and O’ahu.
“Lulu’s Waikiki, I was part of the design stages, then Lulu’s Lahaina,” Panzo explains, “and now with Nalu’s it’s kind of a celebration of the island, and a big part of living in the islands is the ocean.”
And there is a giant, shining, can’t-miss-it symbol of the ocean hanging from the ceiling at Nalu’s South Shore Grill in Kihei: a koa canoe, rescued from a gas station convenience store in Hilo. High electric bills prompted the owners there to renovate, and remove the canoe.
“They had a big lofted ceiling to house this canoe, so their goal was to go ahead and do a drop celling, take the canoe out, and they couldn’t find any takers for it, so they were going to cut it up and throw it away,” he says.
Panzo was on a plane to Hilo within days, with no idea how to get the canoe, hanging 40 feet in the air, down to the ground and over to Maui. But it all started falling into place. A man donated a scissors lift, and 15 people showed up to help bring the canoe down. While Panzo was outside helping with the lift, he says those inside with the canoe became frantic, screaming his name. Panzo says the project manager had started taking photos of the ama, or outrigger, which was carved with the head of a honu, or turtle.
“When he showed me that picture of the honu, there was blood coming down its face, like tears of blood coming down its cheek, and everybody saw it and they’re all freaking out,” says Panzo. “And he said, ‘Do you want me to send this to you on your phone?’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, no, please, I don’t want anything to do with that.’”
Within moments, Panzo says a close Hawaiian friend with the Kihei Canoe Club happened to call his phone to ask about the canoe.
“I said, ‘I think maybe we should just leave it alone, just leave it here, I don’t want to bring any bad juju back to Maui,’” Panzo explains. “He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, that’s our kupuna. You bring her here, and I’ll bless her when you get her to Maui.'”
So, Panzo got her to Maui, but says he kept his distance while the canoe sat drying out in his yard. Then a man who specializes in wood volunteered to clean the canoe up, initially saying he would just spend two hours with some sandpaper, then slap on a quick coat of varnish. But that’s not what happened.
“When we started working on her, you could kinda feel this energy, this mana about her, and two hours turned into 30 hours, five days of sanding and he didn’t want to stop!” Panzo adds, “He wanted to make sure she was going to be perfect, and one coat of varnish turned into four coats of varnish.”
Then came Mother’s Day. As the shiny canoe was getting ready for her blessing and rigging, a family working a few shops away in Flowers by Cora saw something they recognized. It was the canoe. Panzo says they had come over from the Big Island of Hawaiʻi to help family with flowers over the busy weekend, and told him their uncle was the one who built that koa canoe. Panzo invited them to be part of the blessing.
“We formed a circle, 20 of us,” he says, “and it was almost like the ‘ohana from Hilo officially handing the canoe over to us on Maui. It was like full circle. Couldn’t plan it any better. It’s just like this restaurant; everything just falls into place, and it’s just meant to be sometimes!”
As for the restaurant, you could say it’s pretty much been “smooth sailing” since opening in Azeka Mall Makai on July 4th. Breakfast starts at 8 a.m. and goes until 2:30 p.m. Lunch overlaps, running from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. There’s also live, local music every night until close.
“During the weekends, we have a line from the counter all the way out the door, all day long.”
Notice he said “counter.” Panzo comes from a fine-dining background, complete with hosts, servers, bussers, expediters, the whole nine. But after traveling abroad — he helped open several restaurants in Indonesia — he noticed more and more QSRs, or Quick-Service Restaurants, and decided to go in that direction for Nalu’s. Which means? You order and pay at the counter, then restaurant attendants deliver the food to your table.
“Basically what it’s enabled us to do is to eliminate the servers, the hostesses and use those resources for the kitchen,” Panzo says, “so we get to really take care of our kitchen staff, have good-quality people back there, and the food is benefiting from it as well.”
Benefiting, because Panzo can invest more money in local, mainly organic produce. But whether breakfast or lunch, the focus is on flavor. Here are some menu highlights: Corn-flake crusted french toast with lilikoi-pineapple-marmalade filling, fried chicken and waffles, black and blue Ahi eggs benedict, Kihei-style ribs “with respect,” Cubano sandwich, Ahi clubhouse with applewood-smoked bacon, and an apple-brie burger. All Nalu’s hamburger patties are hand-crafted, combining Black Angus with Kauaʻi grass-fed beef.
“I think our food kind of reflects the island lifestyle. We’re not trying to be a health-food restaurant; we offer local flavors with healthy options,” Panzo says, giving the example of Moloka’i black lava salt, used in many of their dishes. “It’s real healthy for you, very low in sodium, minerals, iron, good for the blood, a lot of healthy benefits.”
Another local product you’ll find on the menu is kiawe-smoked sausage. In fact, Panzo helped start the Maui Island Sausage Company, saying he first intended to divide Nalu’s kitchen in half to produce the sausage there. But the restaurant has had such a strong start, it may need to keep the full space.
Nalu’s has an impressive array of “grab-and-go” options, like fresh fruit, desserts and salads. Some offerings are in Mason jars; bring the jar back, and you get $1.00 off. There’s drinking water infused with pineapple/lemon and cucumber/mint, which has been such a hit, customers take photos of the dispensers. And the drinks go well beyond water.
“Six craft beers, some local, some from San Diego, some from Oregon, but two taps are saved for the kombucha. People enjoy the fact that we have kombucha on tap,” Panzo explains. “I can’t keep them in stock; I go through kegs every week. It’s amazing how well that’s been received.”
And just like that magnificent canoe hanging from the ceiling, Panzo is grateful to have a strong, competent crew charting a course toward continued success, from his restaurant attendants and kitchen staff to floral designers (from Flowers by Cora) and local artists.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the crew that fell in place here,” he says, “and it’s like everything from this canoe to the artwork you see on the walls, which by the way is Sherrie Austin images, we kinda sat together when this was nothing but a shell and visualized how everything was gonna be laid out. And here it is. It’s magical.”