Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn
Two uber-crunchy yellow-corn tortillas layered with tender chunks of aged filet mignon, black beans, jack and cheddar cheeses, topped with two farm-fresh fried eggs, slathered with fire-roasted salsa and sour cream. Wait! Where am I? Old Town, San Diego?
My past explorations of Pineapple Grill had focused on the restaurant’s wonderful wine dinners, so imagine my pleasure when I discovered breakfast at this spacious venue overlooking the Kapalua Golf Course and West Maui landscape. It’s deliciously clear why the Grill won the 2013 ‘Aipono Gold Award for Best Breakfast.
Chef Aaron Palone worked with Rising Star chef Jojo Vasquez for four years before taking the helm as Pineapple Grill’s chef de cuisine, and his menu options are a tour de force: Bikini Blonde beer-braised corned-beef hash with poached eggs; Belgian waffles with bananas and candied macadamia nuts; and the Paniolo Breakfast—a local favorite of eggs, home-fried potatoes or steamed white rice, Portuguese sausage, and house-made biscuits with signature pineapple-strawberry-guava jam. For more petite appetites, the Grill offers delicious and delicate eggs Benedict in choices from vegetarian to classic. That’s just breakfast.
Dinner brings its own gastronomic pleasures, such as blue-crab-crusted monchong with grilled, Maui-grown asparagus. This sweet and delicate fish is served steamy hot over crushed purple Moloka‘i sweet potatoes. The meat flakes at the touch of a fork, moist and subtly aromatic in a plum-wine and lemon beurre blanc. Mouthwatering. Another favorite is the pistachio and wasabi pea-crusted ‘ahi steak, perfectly seared and served rare with coconut-scented forbidden black rice. This flavorful, purple rice was once reserved for the emperor of China, and who could blame him? It delivers a sweet, nutty taste and deeply satisfying aroma. Roasted mushrooms and sauteed greens offer earthy balance to this divine dish. No faux food here, and always sourced locally.
Pineapple Grill has been popular among locals since it opened, winning the readers’ choice ‘Aipono Award for Best New Restaurant in 2006 and never losing a beat since, garnering six Gold and Silver ‘Aiponos for Restaurant of the Year (twice as many as its nearest competitor), and six for Best Wine List — most of them Gold. No wonder the recent additions of Pineapple Grill Wine Dinners and Wine Wednesdays (offering thirty-two wines by the glass at 25 percent off have left me dizzy with praise.
Now imagine fab x2. Enter the newly renovated Plantation House. Under the leadership of new ownerGeorge Mackin, this beloved Kapalua eatery has returned to its former glory. Owner of a hugely successful marketing and media company, Mackin began living on Maui part-time five years ago. He and his family now make the island their permanent address.
“The Plantation House is just five hundred yards from our home,” Mackin tells me. “I loved coming here, sitting at the bar and enjoying the million-dollar view. When I learned Roy Dunn was thinking ofselling, I knew I was the guy to buy it.” Mackin saw huge potential in restoring the iconic beauty, and creating a true destination restaurant. And he knew just whom to partner with: the Cohn Restaurant Group, owners of Pineapple Grill.
“I was really selective,” Mackin says. “David and Lesley Cohn have over thirty years of successful restaurant management, and are extremely well respected.”
Recently recognized by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine as one of the nation’s top twenty-five multiconcept restaurant companies, the Cohn Group has launched and run twenty-two dining establishments in Southern California and Maui. The Cohns have also been awarded the National Restaurant Association’s Good Neighbor Award for their hands-on work with at-risk teens. “The programs we support allow us to be involved, not just donate,” David Cohn comments. “We value that.”
For the Cohns, being good people comes first. It shows in the hospitality they offer guests, and thesupport they give their employees. “When I first met David, I went to his restaurants in San Diego,” Mackin recalls. “Everyone was so happy; people clearly loved working there. That’s the environment I wanted.”
“We always had an interest in expanding on Maui,” David Cohn explains. “With George’s background in marketing and media, and a full-time presence on Maui, it just made sense. George understands the potential for making Kapalua a true dining destination.”
Today, Mackin and the Cohn Group are 50/50 partners in both Plantation House and Pineapple Grill. “Usually when you get into partnership, the best part is negotiating,” Mackin says, “but when the best part is four or five months down the line, you know you did well.”
Perhaps one of the smarter decisions (in my humble opinion) was made even before Mackin and the Cohn Group merged: securing Jojo Vasquez as executive chef. Named a Rising Star Chef in 2012,Vasquez has credentials that include the opening of three Morimoto restaurants. More recently, he attracted a faithful following as chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s famed Banyan Tree restaurant, where Vasquez was known for his technically perfect and wildly innovative creations with molecular gastronomy. “I’m a geek,” he once told MNKO writer Shannon Wianecki. “The science of cooking really takes you to higher levels.”
And higher levels is exactly where Vasquez is taking Plantation House. “Jojo is a true lover of the wine-and-food experience,” says Chris Kaiwi, operations managing partner for both restaurants. “He is the perfect chef to elevate the creativity at Planation House.”
If so, Kaiwi is the perfect operations manager. With the help of manager Chad Hubbard, he hasintroduced a series of wine dinners that will take an oenophile’s breath away; Grgich, Silver Oak, David Ramey, Cakebread and Caymus are among the lineup of vineyards that will each take center stage for a whole month.
“When Jojo heard about the idea, he was all in,” says Kaiwi. “His great talent is identifying local farmers and a special ingredient he will work with for the wine pairing.”
I was one of the lucky diners at the recent Grgich wine dinner. The featured farmer was Simpli Fresh Farms, the featured ingredient Kadota figs. If Heaven serves food, Chef Vasquez’s menu will be there:
Roasted Fig & Katifi Tarlet, Caramelized Maui Onion, Mascarpone
Tempura Soft Shell Crab, Jicama Carpaccio, Avocado, Fig Chutney
Fume Blanc, Napa Valley 2012
COPPERHEAD Salmon, Cauliflower, Sugar Snap Peas, Tempura Prosciutto Fig, Honey Gastrique Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2011
Grilled Tenderloin with Zucchini, Gorgonzola-stuffed Peppadew, Fig-Port Demi
Zinfandel, Napa Valley 2011
Warm Kula Strawberry & Fig Cobbler, Vanilla Ice Cream
Chef Vasquez exhibits skill and precision in putting the wine first, expertly pairing with flavorful, creative (yet familiar) dishes. This chef cooks with love. Diners may order the dinner without wine, $75, or with, $105. Clearly, pricing is designed to introduce us to the experience of fine wines. All featured wines are available by the glass or by the bottle, to enjoy on their own or with anything else on the menu.
Mark your calendar — June’s wine dinners showcase Silver Oak; July’s feature David Ramey. August is yet to be announced, but rumor has it that Cakebread or Caymus are strong possibilities. Special farm ingredient? Only Chef Vasquez knows that.
I’ll be there.