I had sailed for six hours in the blistering tropical sun and dragged heavy burdens across skillet-hot sands. In short, I had just made it through the deprivations of an extended windsurfing session at Maui's Kanaha Beach Park. So why would I drive 90 minutes all the way to the other side of the island just for dinner in a shopping mall, bypassing Lahaina and lots of other perfectly serviceable, even wonderful, eateries?
Sushi with attitude.
Allow me to describe. Paper thin slices of tilapia quick seared in ginger-scented peanut oil and topped with pungent Chinese parsley and a peppery Japanese shichimi spice mixture. A roll of delicate soy paper and sticky rice stuffed with sweet slippery mango slices, tender snow crab and crunchy cucumber drizzled with zippy but sweet Thai red pepper vinaigrette. Deeply marbled ahi seared tempura style inside a slightly crunchy panko crust floating atop a thin layer of soy wasabi butter sauce. All served at a bustling Formica sushi bar draped in traditional noren tapestries watched over by a ceramic red-and-white Daruma "Good Luck" cat wearing neon green Wayfarers.
The motto of Sansei chef and founder D.K. Kodama is "No wimpy sauces!" and he definitely fulfills this mandate as he turns the Eurasian fusion cuisine idea on its head; rather than giving Western preparations an Eastern flavor, Kodama takes essentially Asian foods and adds a bit of Western panache in the form of light creams, butters, avocados. He also crosses borders deftly, putting Thai spices, Chinese herbs and Japanese sauces on the same plate. Everything has some kind of zip, though, ranging from sweet mirin rice vinegar to the hefty pow of tear-inducing chili sauce.
The menu's combination of irreverence and innovation does wonderful things for the creative juices; young chefs, tanned and goateed, swap personal recipes and local lore behind the sushi bar and banter with customers, often dishing up off-the-menu items that are first-time creations. I ended up with Chef Shintaro's own Volcano Roll, a cheese-steak sub of sushi stuffed with hamachi (yellowtail) salmon, asparagus and chili butter and topped with pulsing bonito flakes (ergo, the name).
Although Sansei has gotten some critical acclaim recently, the location of this gem, buried in a nondescript tourist mini-mall, keeps it mostly off the tourist radar. But the discount deals often draw crowds and lines of locals; arrive at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays and you can gorge on items off the sushi bar at 25 percent off until 6. (Order fast--you won't be sorry.) Better still, make friends with a local and get 50 percent off at the same times, or go solo after 10 p.m. for the same discount. The restaurant offers a full range of entrees, most of which are quite good. And you can sit down at tables to order the same fare. But the action is at the bar with the young chefs, the visual experience and the free-flowing sake.
Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, in the Kapalua Shops off Lower Honoapiilani Highway, 808-669-6286. Sushi, appetizer and salad menu from $3.95 to $15.95; entrees from $12.95 to $37.95.
CAPTION: For Sansei, a Maui restaurant that's worth the long drive, founder and chef D.K. Kodama melds Asian foods with Western panache.