First time: Ama Ama at Disney Aulani

The seafood stew from Ama Ama.

Photo: Lesa Griffith

When I heard, earlier this year, that Chef Mavro chef de cuisine Kevin Chong had decamped for the Church of Mickey Mouse, I groaned. Now I’d have to drive out to Disney Aulani, a place I thought I would never have reason to visit. But where chef Kevin goes, I will follow. His contributions to Chef Mavro were memorable, and I wanted to see how he would express himself under the restrictions of cooking not only in a huge resort, but a Disney resort.

Saturday, my dining date and I drove the dark, unlit highway to the West Side, and pulled into the dark, barely marked drive up to the dark port cochère of Aulani. It felt almost ominous, more Haunted Mansion than It’s a Small World (Yes, it’s been a long time since I went to Disneyland). But, walking into the woody entrance hall of soaring ceilings, you can’t help but be wowed. The place is laid out like a big neighbor island resort, with a turquoise pool (a canal, really) snaking around the grounds. Ama Ama, the property’s high-end restaurant, overlooks the water, and you get a taste of the resort on your way to dinner.

You get a perky greeting at the hostess station and are led to a table in one of three open-air seating areas. The largest one is sheltered by a huge thatched roof, made with 11 miles of sennet lashing the beams (I know this from listening to fireside storyteller Aito Steele after dinner). We sat in a smaller area, where, overhead, a corrugated roof made me feel like I was in an old rum shack in To Have or Have Not—minus Bogie and Bacall. At 7:45, the place was buzzing with what looked like table after table of residents, and below us was Theresa Bright singing a siren mix of jazz and hapa haole tunes. That Disney knack for making you feel all is right with the world extends to dinner.

Servers are as cheery as the seven dwarves whistling while they work—despite sporting orange outfits that look like coffee shop uniforms. Our attentive waiter left Morimoto for Aulani, and loves it.

Read the menu (a cumbersome wood affair that knocks your silverware around) and you immediately see Chong’s haute cuisine stamp on it. The manchego croquettes I loved at Chef Mavro are there, and a seafood stew made with vadouvan—the French version of garam masala. But there are also spring rolls with mango salsa, and a grilled filet with Cabernet sauce. A little adventure mixed with the safe and sound make everybody happy.

The food is relaxed compared to what Chong labored over at Chef Mavro, but the flavors are there. A tart of sautéed alii, pepeiao and maitake mushrooms is topped not just with crème fraîche, but crème fraîche tinged with coriander. I could eat a whole baking tray of them. Those croquettes sit atop not just kalua pig, but kalua pig rillettes—that means the meat is sloooowly cooked in fat so that the end product is like kalua pig concentrate. A slightly sweet and nutty romesco brings it all together.

Order kahuku corn chowder and you get a snow white bowl with a little rosette made of bits of kalo and salmon on the bottom. The server then pours a pale, yellow liquid until the “taro and lomi lomi salmon” are a tiny island in a sea of sweet corn.

A scallop, resembling a miniature bounce house, is joined by a pair of meaty prawns, a moist piece of opakapaka and a few mussels in a resonant, cooked-down curry sauce (thanks to that vadouvan). Such a nice showcase of seafood after the usual grilled-to-death mélange found in so many hotels.

Not everything is amazing. Rack of lamb (that could have been trimmed a little better) arrives medium rare, but the exemplary meat is overwhelmed by the intense demiglaze and super sweet chutney of pineapple, mango and poha berry.

On the whole, however, the restaurant is a great package. Once you throw in the prime entertainment, the ocean breeze, the torches designed to echo pre-contact kukui lamps, the genial service—the resort prices are worth it. I’m definitely returning to try the rest of the menu.

Ama Ama, Disney Aulani, 92-1185 Aliinui Drive, Kapolei; Visit their website. Disney resorts apparently want to do as much business online as possible. They want you to make reservations online; there is no reservation number on the website. But I called called information to get you a number—674-6200; Starters $12-$18, mains $31-$63+.