A Maui Roadshow at Hapa Ramen
Last week, a trio of Maui chefs brought their brand of modern aloha cooking to San Francisco.
And there was nary a macadamia-nut crusted mahi mahi to be seen.
Instead, Chefs Isaac Bancaco of Ka’ana Kitchen, Jeff Scheer of Maui Executive Catering, and “Top Chef” fan favorite Sheldon Simeon of Migrant, are part of the new wave of young chefs now adding a fresh spin to island cuisine by emphasizing local ingredients in dynamic preparations.
The trio showcased their cooking at invitation-only events last week at Hapa Ramen in the Mission. Call it a cross-cultural exchange, as Hapa Ramen Chef-Owner Richie Nakano is headed to Maui later this year to show off his California cooking chops.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the dinner for media and travel industry folks.
Appropriately enough, the night started off with a pink-hued Rangoon Gimlet made with Maui Ocean Organic Vodka, lime and angostura.
That was followed by a trio of appetizers: Spoonfuls of luscious Kona Kampachi cubes, served raw, and topped with avocado and coconut, prepared by Simeon. (So good, I had two!) Maui tako garnished with piperade and the tang of goat cheese by Scheer. And squares of rye bread topped with blue cheese, honey and salted olives by Bancaco.
Scheer handled the first course, a dazzling crudo of onaga buried in a deep bowl with blood orange, cashew cream and pickled kumquats. Citrus, with its gentle acidity and brightness, is always a perfect match with raw fish. This was everything you wanted an opening dish to be — hitting all the high points and perking up the palate.
Simeon took the next course, a riff on sinigang, the tamarind-infused stew of his Filipino heritage. This one was reborn with lightness — the usual pork replaced with Kauai prawns. Barley added nuttiness and texture along with tare peanuts, boiled until crunchy-soft. The broth was savory and just tangy enough without taking over the dish.
Bancaco followed with “Ahi and Anchovy,” possibly my favorite dish of the dinner, not only because of its flavors, but because it exemplifies the direction new Hawaiian cuisine is taking. Who hasn’t had his fill of seared ahi, particularly dredged in sesame seeds? Bancaco recasts that mundane dish by accentuating the rich, meaty, red brick of salmon with the punch of chopped anchovies mixed with bacon, and a dab of whole-grain mustard. It’s a dish so good that people around me were wishing for seconds.
Nakano, after spying in the walk-in all the Maui pineapples the chefs had brought in, decided to take a turn with dessert. He churned it into sorbet, garnished with chewy, sweet pieces of caramelized pineapple and coconut cookie crumbles. It was the taste of the tropics in winter in San Francisco.
Since I was with my husband, Meat Boy, dinner didn’t quite end there. Well, it did for everyone else. But we actually ended up ordering two dishes off Nakono’s regular menu. Yes, after we finished dessert.
I’m so glad we did, too. Because one cannot leave Hapa Ramen without trying the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Buns ($4 each). To do so would be a crime — or at the very least a regrettable decision not easy to recover from. I cannot say enough about these Chinese steamed buns that cradle Southern-style fried chicken battered with a definite crunch. House-made bread and butter pickles, a little sweet, a little sour, and chili-spiked mayo get tucked inside, too. Nakano says some customers come in for just cocktails and those buns. It really is the perfect nosh — a mash-up of cultures and geographic regions that meld together so effortlessly you think they were always one.
Baby back ribs ($12) come piled with a julienne of watermelon radish drizzled with fish sauce, reminiscent of the pickled carrots and daikon shards de rigueur on banh mi sandwiches. The ribs are first brined, then simmered in their brine before being deep-fried. The result is tender meat with a subtle crispiness on the edges.
After that, we were done for the evening. Really.
But wishing every day could transport us to Maui in the Mission.