It’s plenty of years since I spent time on Maui, plenty of years since my sis lived in Kihei and Kula and I cruised those points and more. That prettiest of drives from Paia to Makawao, the tall scented forests of Olinda, the way the world opens up from the slopes of Haleakala in a heady panorama of green and sea and islands: All that fell off my radar when sis and her hubby left, and there’ve been few reasons since to go back.
Boom! Hilo boy rises to head the kitchen of Star Noodle, one of Maui’s hottest restaurants. Boom! He gets two James Beard nominations. Boom! Top Chef calls. Boom! From a crowded field of chef-testants he cooks his way to the final three of Season 10, which he finishes as fan fave. And boom! Time and again, those unstinting judges praise his food — his balut, adobo, sinigang and other contemporary spins on the simple Filipino dishes he grew up with.
Simeon veered a bit when he went the haute cuisine route in the finale of Top Chef, and it wasn’t lost on him that that might have cost him the competition. At that point he was chasing the amazing new world he’d seen out there, the world of elegant, sophisticated culinary statements and deconstructions and puns. It didn’t take him long to realize that the secret to joyful cooking was to cook from the heart, and his heart wasn’t out there in that elegant new world, but right here at home.
So what’s on the menu of Migrant Maui, the first restaurant to express his style of cooking? The simple food he grew up with. Noodles are there because his favorite breakfast growing up was Maruchan ramen (he’d just had some, the night before, with Redondo’s sausage). Something called Bottom of the Kalbi (cabbage with warm kalbi sauce) is there because that was his favorite part of the dish at Aloha Mixed Plate, where he used to cook.
This is what I went for. The warmth of memory. A new voice channeling local and putting contemporized versions on a plate, from a different direction than I’ve seen. I was so excited, I was halfway through dinner before I realized I hadn’t ordered anything remotely Filipino.
This isn’t a review: Here I have no objectivity, and at the end of the meal the restaurant wouldn’t give me a bill. Instead, these highlights:
- Having fried ahi belly with a good pinot noir made my inner local dance.
- I saw whales breaching. This has nothing to do with the food, but it never hurts.
- The kitchen will cook with Tamari if you tell them you’re gluten-free.
- Simeon made me a raspberry tart with bruleed lemon meringue and a mochiko crust that tasted like shortbread. It was all the haute a Pop-Tart aspires to. It touched the chords of childhood.
Wailea Beach Marriott
3700 Wailea Alanui Dr.