Back on O’ahu, faced with a house that needs my attention and heavy deadlines next week. The party’s over!
But before I put Maui behind me, a tribute to a meal, a man and the many people who make such getaways so delightful for us foodies.
First, The Tasting at David Paul’s Island Grill in Lahaina (davidpaulsislandgrill.com). It’s deserving of capital letters. Ten courses. Oysters to Kula strawberries.
I’ve been acquainted with chef-restaurateur David Paul Johnson for 20 years while he pursued successive ventures — his original restaurant on Lahainaluna Road, the ambitious David Paul’s Diamond Head Grill in Waikiki, a reflective period as chef at a private resort on the Big Island, and his latest location on Front Street in Lahaina.
David is boyishly handsome, effortlessly charming, an exceptional host (I’ve seen him chase guests out of the restaurant to say goodbye to them) and an award-winning, inspired chef. If he tends to think big — his current restaurant has four or five seating areas, I lose track, and is bigger than my whole house —I can only smile, shrug and say, “That’s David.”
So when I called and told him I’d be in town, I was happy to be invited to sit as his reserved chef’s table for two, right in the kitchen, with its opportunity for a little face time.
It was a revealing peek into what a chef-owner does. Celebrity chefs rarely cook on the hot line, though they may engage in prep, particularly if they are protective of their recipes, or are breaking in young chefs. During service, if they’re in the restaurant at all, many do as David does, serving as the expediter. In most restaurants, this key role is an invisible one for senior waitstaff or a junior chef, focused mainly on getting orders out, correcting mistakes, keeping the food flowing.
But when an executive chef or chef owner takes on the job, it broadens:
Cheerleading (“Let’s have good work tonight, guys, good work.”).
Heads-upping (“That order that just came in? That’s the concierge from ———–; he’s been real good to us, let’s make sure everything’s right.”).
Teaching (“When you work with roux, you use a small quantity and cook it out. You’ve got too much in there. Now you have to add butter to relax it.”).
Correcting (“Is that the Diane Sauce? Why is it separated? Look at that fat cap on it! You’ll have to make a pan sauce, we can’t serve this.”)
Hosting (David repeatedly ducks out of the kitchen to circulate among the tables, breaking off conversations whenever he sees departing customers go by the spacious kitchen windows).
And, of course, it being 2011, Tweeting (David jogs out to catch a quick phone shot from in front of the restaurant and Tweets, “YOU’RE MISSING THIS SUNSET.”)
All the while, he was presenting the tasting menu for me and a new friend, Edible Hawaiian Islands sales executive Dania Katz.
First course: Washington state oysters with roasted red beet mignonette sorbet. A pairing I’d never have conceived, a perfect palate teasing opener.
Second course: New Style ‘ahi sashimi (read my earlier blog on the best things I ate on Maui; it’s a dish you could readily recreate at home and blow your guests away!).
Third course: Two watermelon apps (ref. an earlier blog on food trends). My favorite was a sashimi-style block of cold watermelon topped (inevitably) with Maui goat cheese (I think the guy from Surfing Goat got a law passed that every Maui menu MUST feature goat cheese!), some shreds of tender blue crab, and a lascivious fig vinaigrette. Again, DO try this at home.
Fourth course: This was inspired — inspired by David, Jr., who, idly watching his dad prepare a meal at home, began dipping raw Brussels sprout leaves in Caesar salad dressing. A light went on for the chef. Good light. I am going to make this one at home. I always serve Brussels sprouts cored and leaves separated, never as the whole heads, which are invariably soggy and develop that nasty dead-for-three-days odor. David uses raw or near-raw leaves but I think I’ll flash-fry mine in a little olive oil first, just to relax them, but leaving most of the crispness. A from-scratch Caesar salad dressing, heavy on the garlic, and you’re there.
Courses 5 through 9 1/2 (we ditched one through being overfull) included transparent rice flour ravioli with crimini mushrooms, rich root beer short ribs, richer truffled risotto (Oregon black truffles), richest duck confit, an intermezzo of grapefruit and star anise sorbet and Kula strawberries with vanilla ice cream and dark cherry balsamic vinaigrette.
“It’s experiencing life through food,” cried David, enthusiastically. “Ohohohohoh,” I groaned in response.
Now, quickly — I’ve been scolded more than once for over-long blogs — the tribute. The best part of visiting all these restaurants (after the eating) was talking to the chefs and restaurant staffs: David Paul Johnson (David Paul’s Island Grill), Mark Ellman (Mala, Honu), Tom Selman (Main Street Bistro), Peter Merriman (Monkeypod Kitchen and more, via e-mail), hearing a bit of the backstory on recent months.
It’s been a tough, tough time for restaurants. Many are lost. But these and others have persevered. David Paul opened at the worst possible moment and works from 8 a.m. to midnight. Selman kept his doors open through recession and a life-threatening illness and, of necessity, tends the appetizer hour at his Wailuku bistro totally alone, cooking, waiting, prepping for the next day. Mark and Judy Ellman opened Honu last week despite the economy; they’d long had a dream of taking over the surf shop space next to their popular Mala spot in Lahaina.
They and hundreds of others — the cheerful hostess at A.K.’s in Wailuku, the waitress who let me take my time at Bistro Casanova, the bartender at Honu who wrapped my leftovers in a way that fit my car cooler, the waitress at busy Monkeypod Kitchen who patiently listened to me and my grade school BFF giggle our way through a meal — all make dining out worth the expense. I’m so grateful for their caring.
A lot of owners don’t get it. A lot of servers are idiots. A lot of food isn’t worth eating. But when you visit a spot that really works — and, due to careful vetting by my foodie friends, every place I went on Maui worked on multiple levels — it’s a joy and a thing of beauty, not forever, but for a precious hour or two.