Up close and personal at Maui Chef’s Table

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imageA cool Maui breeze caresses my face. In an outdoor dining room lit by candles, I’m at a communal table with people from across the globe. These are the initial moments of Maui Chef’s Table, which recently reopened in a new location steps from the The Mill House restaurant at Waikapu’s Maui Tropical Plantation.

When I told Maui chefs and foodies I was coming to Chef’s Table, I got responses like “awesome,” “phenomenal” and “amazing.” Executive chef Jeff Scheer, named 2015 ‘Aipono Chef of the Year, opened Mill House to rave reviews about six months ago. He came up with Chef’s Table on weekends to take diners on experimental flights of hand-picked, locally sourced produce and proteins from top farmers and ranchers. Menus change constantly, but beef is from Kula, shrimp from Kauai and honey from Haiku. Tonight’s salad was in the ground on a 16-acre organic farm in the restaurant’s back yard just hours ago.

A dinner concept that started three years ago in a commercial kitchen in an alley in Haiku is now a weekly al fresco dinner in the foothills of the West Maui Mountains. “People were just finding us. They were driving all the way from Napili, an hour and a half away,” says Scheer. “It was pretty awesome. It was a little underground dining experience.”

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The buildout for Chef’s Table, 20 yards from the restaurant, resulted in a custom outdoor kitchen and dining area where up to 36 guests feast on seven-course prix fixe menus. Between courses they chat, watch the chefs prepare dishes, take photos and socialize with Scheer and the staff. “A lot of times when we do something here it’s the very first time,” Scheer says. “We don’t even know how we are going to plate it. We’ll do it and then we’ll taste it, refine it, then tweak it.”

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An Ohio native, Scheer is a graduate of the Maui Culinary Academy and spent time in kitchens in California and Oahu before launching Maui Executive Catering. His team works the restaurant seven days a week and Chef’s Table on weekends, and plans to launch happy hour at The Mill House in November.

Scheer invited me to a recent sold-out Chef’s Table. Here’s a quick look:

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Amuse bouche: Vanilla wafer topped with creme fraiche, micro greens and fennel jam. This tasty bite was crunchy, sweet, creamy and salty all in one. I could eat about a dozen of them.

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Sous vide egg served over barley porridge with thyme curd and house-made braciola. The creaminess of the egg paired with the thyme curd complemented the porridge and braciola well. This was very rustic and reminded me of southern comfort food. I can see Scheer’s southeastern Ohio influences making their way onto the plate.

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Before each course Scheer explains the dish; between courses guests socialize. It was fun to watch Scheer sautee an ingredient, plate it and glide over to explain it. Guests loved seeing their food prepared in front of them.

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Chayote served with cultured cream, fresh watercress, tomato and grapefruit with sprinkles of savory granola and Haiku honey. This salad course was outstanding. It paired fresh citrus, organic greens, oat crunch and a multitude of textures along with some vegetables I had never eaten before.

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Foie gras torchon confit: Cooked for 10 days in duck fat and served with burdock braised in sauterne, accompanied with a delightful pickled jaboticaba or Brazilian cherry. The foie and jaboticaba topped with black salt was one of the highlights of the night. The sweet acid from the cherry balanced the intense, rich foie. It danced on my tongue.

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Rye cavatelli pasta made with cheese curd, served with alii mushrooms and sautéed arugula and topped with prosciutto in a parmesan broth. This was super duper rich. Sauce and pasta were full-flavored and the fresh mushrooms deliciously tender. If this were a full entree portion I would have tapped out already.

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Seafood summer roll of Kauai shrimp and fresh ehu (snapper) made into a sausage that looks deceptively like a seared scallop. This was an innovative take on a Vietnamese standard, deconstructed. I loved the seafood sausage with the avocado. The rice paper topping was just excess to me so I took it off and ate the main components.

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Twenty-day-aged Kula beef tenderloin, extremely tender and moist, served with tomato coconut jus, smoked chickpea and kabocha. The beef was a little rare for my liking, but I was full already. The coconut and squash gave the filet a nice sweetness. The chickpea was like a delicious polenta cake and surprised me — another dish of refined comfort food.

 

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Dessert was a chocolate pudding on curry crust with turmeric and cardamom, a hibiscus foam and cacao nib tuille. It was a bit disjointed: The curry didn’t go well with the room temperature chocolate and the bitter cacao nibs made the tuille taste burnt, though the hibiscus foam was nice. Pastry chef Krista Garcia is certainly very talented, with places like French Laundry on her resume. This dish may have been better as separate components.

I loved feasting on farm-fresh produce and proteins in an intimate dining room under the stars. The servers were friendly, approachable and attentive. It was a memorable meal that was refreshing in both focus and concept.

Maui Chef’s Table
Maui Tropical Plantation, 1670 Honoapiilani Hwy, Waikapu, HI 96793
808-270-0305
Most Friday & Saturday nights, 6pm-9pm
Tickets must be purchased in advance
$150 per person, food only; cocktails and wine are available for purchase