The dining room is abuzz with energy as sommeliers circle the guests, offering their best wine and cocktail pairings. Servers pass by, on their way to delivering photo-worthy dishes, and cooks in the open kitchen flip food, fry, and deftly plate one of my favorites: ocean-sweet Big Island abalone with onsen egg on risotto, garnished with linnet-blue borage flowers and mellow-yellow baby corn shoots almost too pretty to eat.
Escorted to a chef’s table in the corner nearest the wine wall, we revel in the energy flowing from the young kitchen staff. Isaac and Executive Sous Chef Ritchard Cariaga stop by to warmly welcome us. Then Isaac says, “We want to prepare some of the dishes we served at the James Beard House. That way you can get an idea of what MiJin has introduced on our menu.” When we ask him how she’s doing in her new position, he grins ear to ear. “MiJin has what it takes to operate a high-volume, high-quality restaurant, and perform at the level of the James Beard House. Creativity is her strong point.” And that’s from the guy whose industry peers chose as 2014 Chef of the Year at Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi’s ‘Aipono Restaurant Awards.
Isaac introduces us to MiJin, and as he leaves, she asks, “Just to make sure, no allergies? You can eat everything, right?” Today’s chefs have to cope with the dining public’s increasingly diverse dietary preferences and concerns about food allergies. I answer, “Yes, we eat everything!” and MiJin’s smile, as she heads back to the kitchen, is one of relief and joy.
Soon she returns. “This is our Trader Vic’s-inspired, deconstructed coconut shrimp with pickled pohā berries and coconut curd,” she says. “It was one of four passed appetizers at the James Beard dinner.” Coconut milk has been reduced to a luxurious aioli consistency, and we are surprised to learn the dish is milk- and egg-free. Crunchy, creamy and sweet-tart, it’s a perfect match for the apple notes and minerality of our 2014 Dönnhoff Riesling Kabinett.
“We used as much local product as we could in New York,” MiJin tells me. “We were able to showcase Kaua‘i shrimp, local ‘ahi, tako [octopus], Big Island-farmed abalone, and Malama Farms Berkshire pork; 80 percent of the ingredients we used at the James Beard House came from Maui.” That was quite a feat, considering the number of ice chests needed to transport the perishable goods that would feed seventy-five guests halfway around the world. The poke appetizer, traditionally prepared with limu (seaweed) and ‘inamona (roasted kukui nuts, Hawaiian salt, and chili pepper), and tossed with the freshest ‘ahi, got two thumbs up from the elite New York diners. MiJin shakes her head and laughs. “They loved that appetizer so much, the servers had to cut off some of the guests who ate three to four!”
The next dish she serves us is MiJin’s ode to allergies. “I created a dish that has every food allergen known to man,” she says with a conspiratorial grin. “Plus, I have an affinity for black-colored food.” The beautifully plated wheat somen noodles cloaked in black sesame mushroom sauce and garnished with a fan of sweet cucumbers and roasted peanuts is served at room temperature. John Weishaar, our sommelier, gently mixes the noodles with the mildly spiced, nutty-garlic sauce at tableside for us. We are glad to be sharing the generous portion. And good thing. MiJin has plans to unveil nine more dishes. . . .