Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Mieko Horikoshi
Have you ever entered a restaurant and felt as if you’ve walked onto a movie set? The actors — the staff — exude a pride that says, “This is a great place. I love it. You will, too.” Your server orates the six specials of the day with the panache of a thespian, describing the fine points of each dish, its preparation (sauteed, grilled, butter poached, roasted, sous vide), its sauces and embellishments. I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast! How can they remember such detail every night? If you love great theater, this is one show you can’t miss.
As my husband, Chris, and I enter the dining room at The Banyan Tree, Kristen Dolotina greets us warmly. The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s food-and-beverage manager infuses her professionalism with such aloha that it doesn’t surprise us to learn she grew up in Hawai‘i. She left her native O‘ahu to work in the hospitality industry up and down the coast of California, working for two James Beard Award-winning chef/restaurateurs, Michael Mina of Arcadia in San Jose, and Bradley Ogden of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara, and building a reputable career of her own along the way. She’s also a certified sommelier with the International Sommelier Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“In 2008, I took a year off to live and work in wine regions in New Zealand and Italy,” Kristen says. “I started at Tupari Vineyards in the Wairau Valley, working there for two months, then moved to the North Island, where I worked on a vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. Once, while pruning the vines to reduce the number of buds, I shook up a beehive and ran faster than I ever ran, down a quarter-mile row of sauvignon blanc.” As we recover from laughing, she continues, “I finished my year by moving to Montalcino, Italy, and worked the grape harvest at Castello Romitorio. It was absolutely the best year of my life.”
Kristen ended her travels in California, landing a job with Navio Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. Here she honed her skills, sharing stories of her adventures with staff and guests. Realizing the value her experiences played in staff training, she coordinated a retreat day for front-of-house staff to work in the vineyards at Thomas Fogarty Winery. Kristen says, “This was an eye-opening experience for the team. As they made recommendations of wine to their guests, I would see some of them transform into storytellers. They gestured and spoke more fluidly and confidently about the character of the wine.”
When a position opened at The Ritz-Carlton’s sister property on Maui, Kristen jumped at the chance to return to the Islands. Tasked with wine and beverage duties, staffing, and collaborating with kitchen management, Kristen brings an expertise that shows in the smooth operation of the restaurant.
Kitchen operations are led by Maui Culinary Academy graduate and executive sous chef Ken Sniffen, and chef de partie Jonathan Haynes. A longtime Ritz employee, Sniffen oversees the property’s food service, while Haynes serves as lead chef at the Banyan Tree. Jonathan says, “I’ve been at The Ritz-Carlton for six years, moving here after graduating from the Culinary Institute in New York. Running the Banyan Tree’s kitchen has been great. We have so many fresh, local ingredients on Maui; I feel honored to work here with such great product.”
Chris and I are eager to try everything. We request a special tasting menu with wine pairings by Kristen. As Jonathan and Kristen retreat to create our evening’s delights, The Banyan Tree’s barrel-aged mai tai and Thymeline mocktail — chosen from the Garden to Glass menu — appear before us. Made with thyme harvested from the restaurant’s herb garden, the mocktail tastes herbaceously lemony, with a hint of sweetness from the lemon sour and muddled cucumber. Chris sips his craft cocktail, made with top-shelf liqueurs and distillates: a bright, smooth mix of tropical fruit with a float of dark Kracken rum. A basket of freshly baked lavash with sweet butter sprinkled with pink ‘alaea salt crystals is a perfect prelude to dinner.
Our first course is day-boat scallops on a buttery cauliflower puree, served with sylvetta arugula, house-cured smoked bacon, Marcona almonds and giant golden raisins pairs perfectly with a chilled 2013 Louis Jadot, Puligny Montrachet Chardonnay. “I chose this wine for its beautiful minerality,” Kristen says. “It has an elegant zest that compliments the decadent flavor of the scallops.” The chardonnay equally compliments our second appetizer: succulent roasted duck breast and rice-wine-pickled carrots tucked into steamed buns with a berry hoisin sauce.
Our next course is deep-water onaga, tender and sweet, and Kaua‘i shrimp simmered in fresh tomato sauce on fettucine. Stopping by our table, Jonathan says, “I like to keep the flavors uncomplicated, so each component shines through. The fish doesn’t really need anything, it’s so fresh and sweet.” We agree.
Kristen pairs dish with 2012 Penner Ash Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley — one of the best places to grow pinot noir, she tells us, calling our attention to the wine’s bing-cherry flavor and velvety texture. “The simple flavors of the seafood pasta parallel the subtle oak flavors in the wine, while showcasing the bright fruit.” Not only are Chris and I enjoying the meal, but we’re also being educated on the finer points of wine pairing. The courses are paced perfectly, allowing us time to reflect on the food and the wine.
Braised short ribs are next, accompanied by 2013 Lancaster Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley. Kristen says, “The refined tannins and dark fruit in this wine cling to the fat in the short ribs, changing the texture to silk.” We marvel at the pairing.
Chef Jon presents our dessert: vanilla panna cotta with brown-butter streusel and fresh berries. It’s almost too beautiful to eat, but I dip in with my spoon and it is light and a quintessential ending to the meal. I sip my first taste of the intensely aromatic Tokaji aszu from Hungary. I love it! Kristen says, “Tokaji is one of my favorites . . . it has dried apricot and honey flavors and it marries well with the berries and cream.”
She tells us that the restaurant hosts a monthly dinner and silent auction benefiting different Maui nonprofits, like the recent dinner for Women Helping Women. With auction items that include stays at The Ritz-Carlton, and dinners at The Banyan Tree, the nonprofit is clearly not the only beneficiary. Kristen also tells us about changes the coming months will bring to the restaurant and bar’s decor, and exclusive chef’s table wine dinners that will showcase Jonathan’s cuisine. Vowing to check with The Ritz’s concierge for a schedule, Chris and I depart, giving The Banyan Tree’s performance two enthusiastic thumbs up.