Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Nina Kuna & Tony Novak-Clifford
I remember my first trip to the high chaparral country of Leon, Mexico: narrow cobblestone streets, the smell of beef sautéing on charcoal-fired cooktops before being stuffed into corn tortillas, vegetable stands brimming with three-foot-high stacks of nopales (cactus), mountains of bright-red plum tomatoes, freshly made tortillas still warm from the conveyor oven. Six-thousand feet above sea level, the little town of San Miguel de Allende was a magical place that my Maui friends Meg and David Graves called home three months out of the year. Many of the Mexicans who lived here were indigenous, born and raised in this world of corn, pork, squash, beans and agave-distilled spirits. I thought then, “How fortunate they are to imbibe some of the best food and drink the world has to offer.”
Now we on Maui are just as fortunate, thanks to Chef Paris Nabavi’s new Sangrita Grill and Cantina. (As I write this, it is scheduled to open February 7 at the Fairway Shops in Kā‘anapali Beach Resort.) A native of Mexico City, Chef de Cuisine Eduardo Pineda will take guests on a culinary journey with authentic regional flavors and cooking techniques in dishes such as slow-roasted duck carnitas with Lahaina green-fig mole, Spanish octopus a la parilla with huitlacoche (black corn truffle), and a classiccochinita pibil — pork wrapped in banana leaves and braised in achiote sauce and topped with pickled red onions.
For folks on the go, the restaurant’s Market at Sangrita offers take-away hot rotisserie chicken marinated in Nabavi’s private spice blend, as well as guacamole, black beans and rice, enchiladas, crispy house tortilla chips, chipotle Caesar salad, tamarind garlic spread, jarritos (Mexican sodas), and much more.
So, how does an award-winning chef who grew up in Tehran and was educated in England end up on Maui with a highly anticipated Mexican restaurant?
The long way ‘round.
Nabavi studied culinary arts in the classic French tradition — in London. Traveling the world, cooking and tasting many different cuisines, he eventually worked his way onto the corporate ladder with Fairmont Hotels. He arrived on West Maui — by way of Texas — in 1989 to serve as director of food and beverage for Kapalua Bay Hotel.
Fourteen years later, Nabavi challenged himself once again. Leaving the corporate lifestyle, he opened his first restaurant, determined to bring the freshest and healthiest foods to Maui. Pizza Paradiso Mediterranean Grill opened in Honokowai in 1995 as a cafeteria-style restaurant where guests may buy as much or as little as their appetites desire. As eclectic as its name, the restaurant offers the juiciest gyros with fresh-herbed cucumber-yogurt sauce on Turkish-style flatbread, tabbouleh made with a particular bulgar Nabavi sources from the Midwest, creamy hummus and garlic-onion-flavored baba ganoush, Caprese salad with the finest house-made balsamic reduction, and pizza like the ones Nabavi remembers feasting on during his travels in Italy.
He says, “I try to purchase as much local Maui produce as possible, because it is fresher and more nutritious; and the more we support our local farmers, the better life will be for all of us. Their success relies on our purchase power.”
A passion for fresh, nutritious food and reasonable prices drives all Nabavi’s business ventures. In 2004, he opened Cilantro Mexican Grill in Lahaina to bring Maui healthy, delicious Mexican food with no lard or MSG. Cilantro won faithful patrons, but a single comment kept recurring. “The customers were saying I needed a better restaurant, where you can get drinks and enjoy the food and the ambience.” After nine years, Cilantro closed its doors to make way for “bigger and better”: Sangrita Grill and Cantina.
Si Teller, of Teller Architects and House of Blues design fame, is a friend of Nabavi’s. As Sangrita Grill and Cantina evolved from idea to reality, Nabavi tapped Teller for his trendsetting design concepts and dramatic flair for turning empty spaces into destination restaurants that excite the imagination. Teller chose the colors of earth and sky: ochre walls, cocoa woods . . . stencils in canary yellow, turquoise and periwinkle that playfully intermingle to create the look of Mexicana. Behind the twenty-eight-foot, recycled-teakwood bar, a mural depicts a bucolic scene of farm workers harvesting agave, and a senorita in folkloric costume. Behind them, the landscape ascends into wheat-colored hillsides and distant blue mountains.
Nabavi commissioned Balinese woodworkers to design and fashion furniture from wood recovered from an ancient shipwreck. The recycled wood adds an Old World charm, and Chef Nabavi says, “I like the idea that this wood [was] not wasted and no trees were cut down.”
Even the lighting has an environmental theme. Natural-fiber shades soften the illumination overhead, and a chandelier adorning the room is made of recycled mason jars. Nabavi’s wife, Donna, created the intricate Venetian ceramic mosaics that embellish candlelit alcoves in blues and greens.
A “tequila shrine” is a focal point of the restaurant; the longhorn skull that presides above it would make Georgia O’Keeffe applaud. Here, thirty premium tequila and mezcal bottles reside, ready to partner with a side of the restaurant’s namesake, sangrita — a nonalcoholic blend of chili, tomato and citrus juices with nuances of spice or fresh herbs. Nabavi and Pineda collaborate on the flavors: Amarillo, a savory blend of golden tomato and grilled yellow bell peppers served with reposado tequila; Sandia, a smoky watermelon paired with anejo; and Classico, a spicy tomato-and-orange-juice sangrita served with blanco tequila.
Busy as he is running two establishments, Chef Nabavi makes time to give back in important ways. At his monthly Persian cooking classes, he shares recipes such as fava bean kuku, cholo kebobs andsholehzard. The fee is $100 per person — made out to the “Maui Food Bank” for its “feed the children” fund.
He also funds the purchase of organic seeds for the Maui School Garden Network — for all forty-one schools in Maui County. “Paris Nabavi is our savior,” says Lehn Huff, the Network’s founder and director. “He donates $4,000 to $5,000 each year to cover costs of organic seed for the schools.”
“I hope my efforts can make a difference for these children, who need good food to eat and stay healthy,” says Nabavi. “Childhood diabetes is on the rise and eating well is so important in the fight against it. Educating children about how to grow vegetables, to me, is just as important. Then they can truly appreciate where their food came from and the time and energy it took to grow it.”
In 2013, Nabavi was named Exceptional Small Businessman of the Year for Maui County. Relaxing beside his backyard vegetable garden, under the draping limbs of the lychee tree, he says, “Most people my age would be thinking about slowing down, but I am busier now than I’ve ever been.”
Sangrita Grill and Cantina
The Fairway Shops
2580 Keka‘a Drive
808-662-6000 | www.sangritagrill.com