Something new: The Preserve Kitchen + Bar

DSC09070Hana may be a sleepy little Maui town, but there’s been a lot going on there in the last several months. The 70 rooms are undergoing a $12 million restoration project, they brought their restaurant operations back in house, and they got a new chef. In fact, two days ago, the hotel’s signature restaurant changed its name to The Preserve Kitchen + Bar and overhauled its menu under chef Jason Johnson’s direction.

Previously, Longhi’s had the restaurant contract, but the food was just okay. That happens a lot when a hotel’s restaurant is more of a canteen rather than an in-house operation. In the process of taking back control of the restaurant, General Manager David McIlwraith recruited his old friend, Jason, with whom he had worked at the Volcano House on Hawaii Island.

Chef Jason Johnson in The Preserve Kitchen + Bar.

Chef Jason Johnson in The Preserve Kitchen + Bar.

Now, this wouldn’t be so remarkable except that 45-year-old Jason had never been to Maui until David brought him over. He’d been to Oahu to visit his wife’s family in Waimanalo, but Jason’s response was, “Why would I ever need to go to Maui? I’m not related to anyone there.” Thus, he’s never been to Kauai, either. (Yet, he’s been to Las Vegas, although I’m pretty sure he’s not related to anyone on the ninth island.)

Jason is super local, but has had some of the finest training in Hawaii. He started in the kitchen at 16, when his mother was running the restaurant at Uncle Billy’s in Kona and his brother was the chef there. It was a way to keep a close watch on him, but he found he loved it. “You get to play with food every day, and put a smile on people’s faces. There’s nothing better than that,” he said.

A preview of the new dishes at The Preserve Kitchen + Bar.

A preview of the new dishes at The Preserve Kitchen + Bar.

From there he worked at a couple of restaurants in Kona, then the Ritz Carlton Waikoloa and Waikoloa Village. He then opened Roy’s there in the 1990s, then bounced between resorts in Hilo and Kona before ending up at the Volcano House in 2013. David brought him to Hana in August.

DSC09053The chef from Travaasa in Austin came over to work with him on the resort’s style of dining, so the food you get at The Preserve is simple, but elevated. “I’ve done all the fancy sauces, but here I wanted to go back to the simple tastes that I grew up with, before those products existed,” he explained. Here’s a look at some of the dishes we tried on the night before The Preserve opened.

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The service remains the same at Travaasa Hana. Our favorite server is Styles (shown here with Rebecca Pang), who has an incredible memory and has a farm in Hana, as well.

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They updated the cocktail menu, as well. I highly recommend the Ginger Gimlet, which is light and nicely balanced.

DSC09034These are sample plates, not the actual size, so we could try more items. This is the Travaasa sashimi sampler ($22), which features fresh ahi and Kona kampachi. Jason makes his own pohole salad, blanching the ferns first, then shaving them. Did you know that people eat pohole differently on each island? Maui people eat it raw, Hawaii Island cooks it.

DSC09036Again, just a sample of what they’ll be serving, not the full size: Hibachi ali’i mushrooms with Asian chimichurri ($14), lobster crab cakes with Hawaiian chili pepper aioli ($22) and togarashi seared scallops with lilikoi butter sauce ($18). These were so good, I could just eat them for dinner. This sampler plate, in fact, could have just been dinner. You get the full, juicy flavor of each one, and the sauces are there just to enhance them.

DSC09020Molokai sweet potato soup ($14) is high on our favorites list, too. The green coconut curry drizzle is a creative move, giving it some spice and richness. The strips of hearts of palm add texture, but the pieces of candied ginger are what really pull the whole thing together. It’s not strong, just enough to give it a little element of surprise in each spoonful.

DSC09017He’s making his pipkaula in-house for this tomato pipikaula salad ($15). You get house-cured beef, arugula, shaved fennel, Maui onion, local goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction. I think even non-salad eaters will like this one.

DSC09046Okay, this isn’t the normal sized salad, either. (They made a huge portion of the Hana baby beet salad so we could share it family style.) If you like beets, definitely get this salad — the beets were the sweetest I’d ever had, and you can taste the freshness. The cheese and the green beans make it hearty, too.

DSC09029I didn’t get a shot of the beef tenderloin ($55), so you’ll have to believe me when I say that it did not disappoint, especially with that goat cheese compound butter. I did get a photo of the pan-roasted Kona kampachi ($45), served with Molokai sweet potato cake, sautéed macadamia nut pohole fern, and ginger butter sauce all over. The fish was really good, but I found myself more addicted to the sautéed pohole! I’ve never had it like that before, and that was the best ever, with the flavors and textures all transforming each other. I kind of wish I had brought a tupperware for that one.

DSC09024Those on gluten-free and vegan diets will rejoice to see this Hana primavera ($35), comprised of spaghetti squash and zucchini “noodles” with a lentil bolognese and shaved parmesan (okay, the cheese isn’t vegan). We think omnivores will enjoy this, too, since it’s surprisingly rich and tasty — not super vegetable-y. It was one of the last dishes to come out, and we liked it so much that we were kind of sorry we didn’t take it first, before we got too full.

DSC09051 DSC09052 DSC09055Just a sampling of the revamped desserts, from top: their signature coconut cake, flourles chocolate cake and lilikoi cheesecake. My favorite was the lilikoi cheesecake because it was nice and light, but I think most people liked the coconut cake, since the last layer is a little boozy.

DSC09033Rebecca with some Hana media and farmers. The restaurant is about 75 percent sourced locally; Jason is not just using Hawaii products but is trying to get as much of his ingredients as possible from Hana farmers.

Although I really enjoyed Jason’s cooking, the real test was seeing how the Maui media felt about it. They had been to Travaasa Hana over the years and the consensus was that the food was finally at “special occasion” status, quality that they expected from such a place.

Now, if you’re going to make a flight or drive all the way there, you might as well stay overnight. Click here to see the menu of rates; at first glance, it seems expensive, but keep in mind that all the activities and facilities are included, kind of like on a cruise ship. Kamaaina get 20 percent off rooms and dining all year round, and if you get on the email list, you can get dibs on the discount sale (about half off) that only comes out in September and December. If you book three or more nights, the air fare from Kahului to Hana is included.

Pretty sweet deal! If you’ve never been to Hana before, let me tell you: It’s a magical place. Dania Katz and I spent a lot of time working in our room, and even that time was very relaxing. I can’t wait to go back. And I probably will, just to see how Jason’s menu has evolved.

The Preserve Kitchen + Bar
Travaasa Hana
5031 Hana Hwy.
888-820-1043