MAUI, HAWAII — This island’s dining scene is heating up with the arrival of two new restaurants last year, including a fun one by “Top Chef Fan Favorite” Sheldon Simeon, late of the ever popular Star Noodle.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to check out that restaurant plus the splashy new Ka’ana Kitchen — all courtesy of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau.
As anyone who’s been to Hawaii can attest, big-name restaurants here tend to be not only pricey and touristy, but at times all too predictable. Not these two. In fact, I can’t wait to go back again to both.
Even before he appeared on Season 10 of “Top Chef,” Sheldon Simeon’s cooking drew lines day and night at Star Noodle. After making it to the final three? The place was bombarded with even more throngs.
And now after being named “The People’s Best New Chef — Northwest & Pacific Region” for 2014 by Food & Wine magazine? Tourists and locals alike are following him over to his new restaurant, Migrant, which opened four months ago, as evidenced by the packed tables on the night I was invited in as a guest.
The slogan on the menu and servers’ T-shirts says it all: Come to My House. Eat.
Simeon is doing his own style of food here — comforting, Asian-inspired island flavors with little twists here and there. It’s food meant for sharing and enjoying a rollicking time over.
After “Top Chef,” Simeon had a slew of offers, but when he was asked to be the head chef of the new Migrant at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort, he couldn’t resist. He partnered with Chef-Owner Mark Ellman and manager-producer Shep Gordon, whose clients include Alice Cooper (who is an investor in the restaurant). Indeed, at the entrance to the restaurant is a wall covered in framed photos of celebs who have already dined at Migrant, including Steven Tyler (a regular), Clint Eastwood, Ritchie Sambora, Tom Colicchio and Charlie Sheen (apparently, quite the generous tipper).
Ellman is the founder of Mala Ocean Tavern on Maui, as well as Mala Wailea, also in the Wailea Beach Marriott. In fact, Migrant was built in what was once Mala Maui’s under-utilized lounge area. Simeon also now oversees Mala Maui. Not only do the two restaurants share the same kitchen, but the same cooking line, which really keeps the cooks on their toes, Simeon says.
When Simeon left Star Noodle, much of the crew came along with him to Migrant. In fact, they all car-pool in a caravan together now, making the 45-minute trek from the other side of the island.
The restaurant was originally going to be called Migrate, Simeon explains. But then he decided upon “Migrant’ to “celebrate the actual people who came here who are behind the food.”
The tone is set from the get-go by the platter of chicharrones and house-made chili dipping sauce. After all, as our server joked, “Pork is Sheldon’s favorite vegetable.”
I couldn’t resist the French Onion Ramen ($23) made with Gruyere. It’s tsukemen-style ramen, in which the broth comes in a separate bowl from the noodles. Traditionally, you dip the noodles in the broth before slurping them up. Here, you can just ladle the sauce into the bowl of noodles and have at the chunks of tender, sous-vide short ribs. The broth is super concentrated with intense beef and onion flavors. It is an umami bomb. It reminds me of a childhood favorite I used to love: Chinese noodles tossed simply in warmed oyster sauce. Again, it was that irresistible tangle of chewy noodles coated liberally in rich, thick savory sauce.
Hibachi Hanger Steak ($26) is right out of Vietnam with its flavors of fish sauce, pickled shallots and peppery watercress, and meat so incredibly juicy and tender that it’s ridiculously good.
Pancit Noodles ($14) is tossed with pork, shrimp, shiitakes and plenty of fried, crisp garlic. As my husband said so succinctly, “It’s like garlic noodles — but with stuff in it.”
Migrant Dynamite ($24) is like an oversized Japanese chawanmushi, again “with stuff in it.” Three types of fish –ahi, mahi mahi and monchong — are cooked with shrimp, scallops and slices of zucchini in a eggy, custard. It all gets slathered with masago (fish eggs) enfolded into mayo plus a smear of unagi-like sauce. It’s best eaten with rice because it’s so soft and saucy.
For dessert, who can pass up Ovaltine Chocolate Cake ($15), especially if you grew up with that malted milk powder as a staple in the pantry? The mousse-like cake comes with a waterfall of sweetened condensed milk whipped cream and a tumble of chocolate malt crumbles. Like so much of the food at Migrant, it stirs up beloved food memories that can’t help but bring a smile.
Simeon couldn’t be more proud of what he’s had a hand in creating here. But what he’s most tickled by is the fact that the Wailea Beach Marriott, which never used to draw locals to dine, now does. After all, where Simeon goes, crowds follow. Bet on it.
Chef Isaac Bancaco may not have the mainland name-recognition that Chef Sheldon Simeon does. But if you appreciate fine food done with finesse, he’s definitely one to take careful notice of.
The Maui native progressed through stints as executive chef of Pineapple Grill in Kapalua and chef de cuisine at Humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa at the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa. He also worked with celeb Chef Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger in Massachusetts.
Don’t let the name fool you. It may inspire visions of a casual plate-lunch spot. But it’s actually a reference to the fact that the kitchen is the focal point of the restaurant. It’s an entirely open kitchen. In fact, there’s even room for a few at the chef’s counter with a bird’s eye view of all the cooking action. Two can reserve the “Sommelier Table,” a space at the counter that is right by the wall of wine refrigerators, where for $175 per person you can enjoy a five-course dinner to go with five wines you first select. There’s also prime space at another part of the chef’s counter, where you’re only inches from one of the cooks. There, you can enjoy five courses for $125 per person, watching every step of each dish made before your eyes.
The latter spot is where my husband and I were invited to sit that night as guests of the restaurant. Line cook Gage Smit who was directly in front of us the entire night kept us entertained by answering questions about dishes as he assembled them. He said having diners right in front of him took a little getting used to at first. But now, he appreciates the enthusiasm they bring to the experience.
The dishes are meant to be shared tapas-style, though the plates for the most part are much larger than any other tapas joint I’ve encountered. Generous in size, they also make use of top-notch ingredients from Ka’ana Farm and other Maui farms.
The wine list is extensive. There’s also a full bar front and center, which can make anything you want. Or go with a Green Destiny ($16) of gin, dry vermouth, shiso, grapefruit and lemon, as I did, to wake up the palate with zing before the food arrives.
Sitting at the counter affords temptation like never before because pretty much any dish you see looks so enticing that you want it. We managed some restraint, though, and settled on four dishes, plus one dessert.
Rib-Eye Cap ($26) comes draped with Thai basil leaves, slivers of green papaya, chopped peanuts and a chili-lime sauce. It’s the flavors of Vietnam enlivening even more a pretty magnificent cut of meat.
Grilled Octopus ($18) is beyond tender and wonderfully smoky. Its meaty chunks are arranged with torn pieces of crisp bread, soft goat cheese, watercress and asparagus — all in a bright lemon vinaigrette.
Bigeye Ahi ($45) is a riff on a Nicoise with capers, haricot vert, compressed tomato, bits of hard-boiled egg and an olive remoulade puddled underneath. The barely seared tuna is dense, rich and makes you never want to put the canned stuff on a salad again.
If you can have only one dish here, you must have the Abalone Risotto ($31). On the menu since opening day, it’s one of the dishes Bancaco can’t ake off. Indeed, I saw so many of them being made by Smit, I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly every other table ordered it. With the dishes coming out two at a time, my husband and I would each eat half of the dish in front of us before passing it to the other to finish. Let’s just say, if he had looked away long enough, I would have gladly eaten every spoonful of this risotto without ever feeling guilty about not sharing. That’s how sublime it is. The risotto is cooked ahead of time part-way, then finished to order. It doesn’t suffer for it, either. Not when it’s infused with a deep miso broth, tender abalone pieces, then draped with thin slivers of Kona Kampachi “bacon.” The piece de resistance is the 62-degree egg that is gently positioned into the center of it all. You break the yolk open, it oozes out perfectly to be stirred into the risotto. It’s a luxurious dish with deep, complex briny flavors. I could eat it every week and not tire of it.
For dessert, we decided to share the sundae ($14) after Smit let us know the coconut ice cream in it was some of the best he’d ever had. It didn’t disappoint. It comes out on a tray: Scoops of snow-white coconut ice cream topped with big slivers of coconut in a bowl. A pitcher of warm chocolate sauce. And a bowl of candied macadamia nuts. You assemble it all however you please. Then, you dig in only to find a surprise treasure of little cubes of coconut-dusted chocolate cake underneath the ice cream. Score!
On your way out, you can even wander through the anterior room used for prep during the day and by the pastry chef at night. As with the rest of the restaurant, it’s all visible to the public.
Ka’ana Kitchen is indeed open — and you’d be remiss not to walk through its doors for a taste.
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Hankering for Hawaii Part IV: Dining at Three James Beard Semi-Finalists on Oahu
Hankering for Hawaii Part V: The Posh and the Pig