#CatEats: Dinner in a kitchen on Maui

By May 22, 2015 Food

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I didn’t know how I was going to pull this off.

I was going to be flying back home from Okinawa, where I had been for a week, with only a couple of hours before jumping back on a plane to Maui.

But I had a good reason.

It was called Chef’s Table, an exclusive dining experience put on by Maui Executive Catering in Haʻikū, known for thoughtful, hyper-local dishes.

Here’s how it works: For $100, you feast on a prix fixe menu created and executed by executive chef Jeff Scheer, an alum of the Culinary Institute of America and chef instructor at the Maui Culinary Academy, right in his working commercial kitchen. Chef’s Table is held on Fridays and Saturdays and often features other notable chefs who collaborate on the menu and preparation. It seats up to 24 people — split between two rooms — with each course served on classic wood-topped tables with elegant dinner ware.

It’s fancy — but not stuffy.

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Scheer prepping for dinner — right in front of you.

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It’s a working commercial kitchen. I loved the ambiance.

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Here’s the table setting.

I had heard about it through my dear friend, Tanya, a mother of three who returned to culinary school to perfect her already pretty perfect baking skills. (She comes from a family of bakers.) But after a couple of cooking classes — and learning under Scheer — she’s grown to really, really love cooking. She was so excited for us to fly to Maui and meet her mentor — how could we say no?

And after eating this meal, why would we ever?

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On one side, the chefs are prepping dinner. Behind them, the diners sit and watch.

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Scheer plating the charcuterie board course.

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You get an up close look at all of the ingredients used for diner. This is the beef slab used in the sixth course.

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Krista Garcia, formerly of The French Laundry, was the chef collaborator that night. We lucked out!

What I loved about the experience was actually watching these chefs work.

It’s not everyday you can get this behind-the-scenes look at what they do, how they prep and plate, what kinds of local ingredients they’re using. And with this event, you can get all of that — and you can even talk with them, take photos, whatever you want. For someone who’s into all aspects of food like me, this was awesome.

So here’s what we ate:

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It started as all memorable meals often do: with an amuse-bouche. This was a tasty little pumpernickel macaron with sous vide radish and homemade butter. I could have just had this and left. It was that good.

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The first course featured a local farm egg, done sous vide, with mustard ice cream and crispy onions. The egg held up — not runny, not hard — and that mustard ice cream was a game-changer. Talk about creative flavor combinations! This might have been my favorite dish of the night.

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The second course showcased local taro, fried until crisp, with a goat cheese curd — also local — and blue oyster mushrooms.

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Next up, the house chauterie board, so rustic and fun to share, with house-cured meats, goat cheese and tomatoes. But I have to say, I was blown away by terrine, a French forcemeat loaf similar to pâté. This one, though, was made with macadamia nuts and poha (cape gooseberry) berries. It was so good, my husband declared, “Ho, this Spam thing is mean!”

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A close second favorite was this dish: the wild boar agnolotti swimming in tomato water flavored with sage and topped with whey foam. I’m still unsure how anything becomes foam, but this definitely worked.

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The fifth dish was a bowl featuring a carrot puree dotted with a Kauaʻi shrimp — head on, of course — with tarragon and a forbidden rice cracker.

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Next was this perfectly braised beef with alliums — a kind of onion — with zucchini. Tender and oozing with flavor.

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And for the finale — and if we could get seconds, this is the dish I would have asked for — was Garcia’s masterful liliko‘i posset. A posset is a British hot drink of milk curdled with alcohol or citrus juice. It’s made a comeback recently as a dessert. And Garcia smartly used local passionfruit — love the tang — and adorned it with all things celery. Yes, celery. Like celery candy that my husband, who loathes the vegetable, ate as such. Super creative — and the flavors all worked.

So if you’re on Maui on a Friday or Saturday — and you’re looking for a unique dining experience — this is it. Truly one of my favorite dinners in Hawai‘i, if not for the creative flavors, for the lively atmosphere. And it helps we had great company, too.

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Chef’s Table at Maui Executive Catering, 810 Kokomo Road, #150, Haʻikū, Maui. Cost is $100 per person. BYOB. Phone: (808) 575-9002. Next dinners are May 22 with Chef Krista Garcia, May 23 with Garcia presenting vegetarian courses, May 29 and May 30. Reservations highly recommended, if not required.

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#40trails No. 5: Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail

By May 18, 2015 #40trails

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HIKE: Wiliwiliniu Ridge Trail, Wai‘alae Iki, O‘ahu
WHEN: May 2015
LENGTH: 5 miles roundtrip
DIFFICULTY: Moderate
FEATURES: Native plants and birds, views of Waimānalo, camping allowed, stairs and section with ropes

I couldn’t remember the last time I had hiked to the summit of the Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail in East Honolulu — but I did remember two things: the stairs and the ropes.

This trail, located at the top of the exclusive Wai‘alae Iki subdivision, is very similar to its neighboring trails, Hawai‘i Loa and Kuli‘ou‘ou, in terrain and views. And they all have those freaking stairs.

But I digress.

Since the trailhead is located in a gated community, you have to declare your intentions to a friendly guard on Laukahi Street. He will hand you a parking pass with instructions on how to get to the start of the trail. There’s a small parking area — you can’t park anywhere else — that limits the number of hikers and hunters that are on the trail. Which is a great thing, actually.

(And please abide by the rules and regulations. The Wiliwilinui Community Association has been really cooperative in allowing the public to access this trail. So let’s not screw that up.)

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Here’s the start of the trail.

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The first part of the trail is paved.

The trail starts on a dirt access road through formosa koa and waiawī (guava) trees up Wiliwilinui Ridge. This was built by the U.S. Army back in 1941, so the road is wide and well graded — and, subsequently, popular with mountain bikers and trail runners.

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Of the three trails along this stretch of the Ko‘olau Mountains, this hike is probably the easiest. Kuli‘ou‘ou is windy and long, with lots of switchbacks; the last section of the Hawai‘i Loa Ridge Trail is a stiff climb to the top. But on this trail, you get to leisurely walk along a paved road for more than a mile before climbing a ridge to a HECO tower.

Albeit, it is uphill.

We spent this part of the hike chatting incessantly about everything from Sunday dinner plans to the woes of trying to get pregnant. (It’s not as easy as it looks.)

Despite the relative ease — and concrete — the trail, itself, is still a walk through a forest of native koa and ʻōhiʻa trees, ironwoods, some Cook pines. You may even glimpse the endangered — but curious and friendly — O‘ahu ‘elepaio (monarch flycatcher) here.

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The sight of power lines does diminish the whole “nature” feel of this hike a bit, but it’s still a beautiful trail.

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We stopped to take in the view of ‘Āina Haina to the east. This residential community was named after local dairyman and owner of the Hind-Clarke Dairy, Robert Hind. Hence, the name, which means, “Hind’s Land.”

After about 40 minutes from the start, you’ll reach an open clearing with a large tree and a swing (below). I’ve sat in the swing. It’s stable. And it’s a great excuse to take a short break before heading up the steepest part of the trail to the summit.

The stairs were placed years ago to stabilize the hillside and make access to the summit easier. I wouldn’t want to hike to the top without them, that’s for sure.

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The swing marks the start of the hardest section of the trail.

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The stairs to the summit.

After a few sections of stairs, you’ll reach a flat section with a clear view of the summit in sight (below).

We didn’t pick the most ideal day to do this trail. It had been raining for days leading up to the hike, making the trail muddier and slipperier than we would have liked. And we could already tell the clouds had rolled in, blocking the view from the summit.

The upside, though? We only encountered three other people — and a dog named Missy — on the trail.

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Here’s where the trail starts to get a bit more difficult.

There’s a steep section, deeply rutted from rain and erosion, with ropes at the final push to the top. It’s not overly hard; you just have to be comfortable climbing with ropes and not worried about getting muddy. (Then again, I’m a big fan of ropes and mud.)

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After this section, you’ll approach a communications tower (above) — another strange sight on a ridge hike — and a sign that you’re almost to the top.

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The summit isn’t incredibly spacious, and there’s a small bench at the top. The views at the top — on a clear day, of course — are incredible. You’re at about 2,500 feet elevation, overlooking the windward coast from Kualoa Point to Waimānalo. You can see the three peaks of Olomana and the summit ridge to Kōnāhuanui, the highest peak in the Koʻolau Range. (That’s another hike, for sure.)

But alas, we were socked in — until just when we were going to head down. The winds suddenly changed and we were able to get a very, very quick view of the coastline and Pacific Ocean.

Kismet.

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Then on the way down, we caught this view (above) of Downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī — complete with a rainbow.

It took us less than three hours total to complete the trail, though we weren’t trying to break any records. It was just a nice morning to catch up with great friends – and get in a workout, too.

It never hurts to have lunch plans right after, either.

VERDICT: This is the easiest of the three trails — Hawai‘i Loa and Kuli‘ou‘ou — to the Ko‘olau summit on this side of the island, with the first quarter of it paved. If you can ignore the power lines and asphalt and focus on the native trees and ferns instead, this is a very enjoyable hike that ends in spectacular views of the windward side of O‘ahu. And it won’t take up your entire day, either.

***
Follow my hiking adventures #40trails at Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/thecatdish).

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Goodbye to two great restaurants

By May 13, 2015 Food

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On May 3 I got an email that simply read, “Changes for DK Restaurants.”

I almost didn’t open it.

But I did — and found out that two of my favorite restaurants — Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas and Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar — were closing this month.

I was shocked. The last time we had been to Hiroshi it was packed. (Granted, it was one of those special kaiseki dinners, but still.) It was hard to believe this restaurant, along with the more casual Vino, would no longer be our go-to dinner spot on a Friday night.

Not even 10 minutes after reading the email, I made reservations to eat there with my husband that night.

It just so happened executive chef John Iha — arguable one of the most underrated chefs on the island — was serving up fish and produce from Mari’s Gardens, an 18-acre aquaponics and hydroponics farm in Mililani where my husband works. So while it was great to see Iha — and everyone’s favorite master sommelier-comedian Chuck Furuya — that night, it was doubly nice to eat greens and tilapia (top) from my husband’s farm, too.

But I can’t say that took away from the shock and sadness I felt that night.

For one, both restaurants serve up some of my favorite dishes, including the Portuguese sausage potstickers (below) with wilted choi sum and an masterfully crafted truffled butter ponzu sauce that I could never replicate at home. (Which is why I love eating out.) And the fish here was always surprisingly good, from the panko-crusted mekajiki (broadbill swordfish) to the pan-roasted onaga on an ogo squid ink pasta to the crispy-skinned Hawaiian kampachi with local tofu and Manila clams.

And let me tell you, my husband and I have never had tilapia done so well — perfectly prepared, mindfully with the skin still on, so moist and flavorful. If you tried it, you’d never think of tilapia as the rubbish fish from the Ala Wai Canal again, trust me. (It helps that Iha is an avid fisherman. He knows what to do with fish.)

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And then there was Vino, with its laid-back atmosphere perfect for dinner with friends, where all you need is a hot loaf of homemade bread, a nice spread of cheeses and a bottle — OK, several — of wine.

I have a lot of great memories at both restaurants, many with my husband, others with friends and a table full of sharable plates and empty wine glasses.

I can’t imagine the food scene in Hawai‘i without these two restaurants — or without Furuya, who’s not just a master of all things wine but has a way of making you laugh and roll your eyes at the same time. He’s an icon that needs to work a room full of hungry patrons, and I’m sure he and chef/restauranteur D.K. Kodama are looking for another venue — if not for their food, for him.

“Change is good — and inevitable,” Kodama said in that press release I read two weeks ago. “And we’re excited about the future as we grow our company in new ways.”

So while two restaurants close, I’m hopeful another one — maybe two! — will open in their place.

And I can only believe their next venture will be even better.

The last day of service at Slurp!, the ramen pop-up, will be May 15. The last evening of service at Hiroshi and Vino will be Thursday, May 21. So make reservations now.

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#CatCooks: Homemade, restaurant-quality salsa

By May 5, 2015 Food, Weekend Dish

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There are a few things I never even think about making.

Like mayonnaise or marshmallows.

Same can be said for salsa.

Why make it when you can buy it — and it’s easier, cheaper and probably better-tasting?

I decided to try making my own salsa after a girlfriend wanted a spicy condiment to serve with some smoked pork she was planning to make. I had fully planned to just buy a fancy jar, but she insisted I make it from scratch. I mean, if she had to make her pork from scratch, I should suffer, too.

Fair enough.

Here’s the thing: I had no idea how to make salsa — just a vague notion it would require tomatoes, peppers and maybe lime juice.

So I searched online, looked through some cookbooks, and came up with a simple — OK, not as simple as just buying a jar of the stuff — recipe that turned out surprisingly good.

I mean, I might not ever buy store-made salsa again!

Here’s what I did:

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Here are the players. Ignore the small can of salsa — I used that to prop up the small can of chipolte peppers in adobo sauce.

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First, I cheated. I used a can of petite tomatoes, already diced and paired with jalapeño peppers. This cuts down your prep down greatly. I dumped the entire can — with the juices — into a small food processor.

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Next, I added about 1/4 cup of diced onions. You can add more if you want.

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I like my salsa chunky and fresh, so I added a few grape tomatoes into the mix. You can use cherry or Roma tomatoes, too.

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Then I diced up about a quarter of a full-size red bell pepper. In hindsight, I would have used yellow instead for both color and sweetness. Still, this worked. I added this (and the tomatoes above) into the food processor.

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Salsa needs kick, so I added two more jalapeño peppers. I removed the seeds and ribs — I wanted to cut down on the heat — but you can keep them, if you prefer a super spicy salsa.

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I sliced the peppers really thin and added them to the food processor.

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Here’s the secret ingredient: chipolte peppers soaked in Filipino adobo sauce. This gives the salsa that vinegar-y kick — and some heat. If you can’t find it, don’t worry. The salsa doesn’t need it.

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I just added a heaping tablespoon of this stuff to the mixture. Not much, but the heat and the smoky flavor go a long way.

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Next, I added a teaspoon of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt. That’s it.

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I added the juice of a whole lime. It was a small lime, so if you’re using a larger one, you might want to cut down on the juice.

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Finally, the cilantro. I realize this is controversial as a lot of folks — including a bunch of my friends — hate this herb. That’s fine, you don’t need it. But the Chinese parsley gives the salsa such a nice, fresh flavor.

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Pulse the mixture in your food processor about eight to 10 times, that’s it. You’re just trying to mix everything evenly and get a nice consistency. Don’t over-blend it unless you like a smooth salsa. (I don’t!)

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And that’s it! Your salsa is done! It might be more expensive than store-bought salsa, but trust me, this one has more body, more flavor and more depth than anything you’d find in a jar.

*******

Here’s the recipe:

Cat’s Salsa

Ingredients:

1 16-ounce can of petite-cut tomatoes with jalapeños
1 heaping T. of chipolte peppers in adobo sauce
1/4 cup onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 red or yellow bell pepper, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, sliced thinly
Handful of cherry or grape tomatoes, diced
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 to 1/2 cup cilantro, if desired
1/2 tsp. cumin, if desired

Directions:

Put everything in a food processor and pulse eight to 10 times. Store in refrigerator until serve.

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#40trails No. 4: Kayaking, hiking Mokoli‘i

By May 4, 2015 #40trails
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Paddling to Mokoli‘i

HIKE: Mokoli‘i (Chinaman’s Hat), Kualoa, O‘ahu
WHEN: March 2015
LENGTH: 1/3 mile (to the island), 15 minutes to the summit
DIFFICULTY: Moderate (only because you have to get there somehow)
FEATURES: 360-degree views, seabirds, light bouldering

Before I even start, I have to post these warnings: you can only walk to Mokoli‘i, or Chinaman’s Hat, at low tide. Once the tide rises, you’ll need a kayak or surfboard or something to get back. (Unless you’re a strong enough swimmer, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.) People have died here, so this is no joke.

We didn’t even bother with the idea of walking out to Mokoli‘i, located less than half a mile off Kualoa Regional Park (49-479 Kamehameha Highway). We loaded up a two-person kayak and planned to paddle out there no matter what.

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Getting the kayaks ready on the beach

Some background on the island: This iconic offshore islet is more commonly referred to as Chinaman’s Hat because of its shape. But it’s real name — Mokoli‘i — means “little lizard” in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian mythology, the island is part of a giant lizard’s tail that was chopped off and thrown into the ocean by the goddess Hi‘iaka. (The rest of the lizard’s body can be found at Kualoa Ranch.)

This 12.5-acre island was once home to several species of birds; now only the wedge-tailed shearwater nests here. Most of the vegetation are non-native, though you can find ‘ahu‘awa, naupaka and ‘ilima here.

Most people don’t realize that it’s totally legal to hike to the top of this island. It’s owned and managed by the city and open from dawn to dusk.

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Our destination in the distance

We got to Kualoa Regional Park just before it opened at 7 a.m. (You can park alongside the highway and risk leaving your car there. Or you can wait until the park opens and park here, where it’s somewhat safer.) We would have rather shoved off earlier to catch the sunrise and beat the crowd, but the safety of our vehicle (and gear) was a bit more of a priority.

In fact, by the time we jumped into the kayak, we could already see about a dozen people at the summit of the island.

The paddle to the island, located about 1/3-mile from shore, is easy and takes maybe about 20 minutes. The tide was low when we left shore, so our paddles kept hitting the reef. The group who had gotten to the island before us paddled on a variety of surfboards, neatly parked on the small beach where we landed.

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Climbing to the summit

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It’s worth stopping to take in the view

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This hike requires some light bouldering

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There are definitely areas that are steep and sketchy

The climb to the top isn’t difficult, though it requires some light bouldering. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to make it to the summit.

The trail was pretty well-worn, so we didn’t have a problem finding — and following — it, though it’s obvious there are several ways to get to the top. While I know people have climbed it successfully in slippers, I’d recommend shoes or reef walkers, which is what we used.

And the climb isn’t for those with gripping fear of heights, either. There are some sections that can, well, make you pause for a second.

But when you get up there…

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The view from the top

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A look at Kāneʻohe Bay

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Can you see the other hikers loading up to leave down there?

… the views are so worth it.

The summit area is pretty small. I can’t imagine how that group of friends fit up here, to be honest. But we were just happy to have it all to ourselves — a rarity!

From here, you get 360-degree panoramic views of Kualoa, the Ko‘olau Mountains and Kāneʻohe Bay. It’s simply breathtaking.

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Cheers!

We brought a bottle of champagne — hey, we know how to hike! — and raised our stemless shatterproof wine glasses to a beautiful day — and an uncrowded summit!

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Farewell, Mokoli‘i

On our back way, we decided to paddle around the island, getting this unique view of the islet. There’s a nice little cove with a tiny, secluded sandy beach on the backside where I know people have barbecued and picnicked. We saw two couples snapping selfies with their GoPros and opted to keep paddling. We had the island to ourselves for that one magical moment. We didn’t want to ruin it.

VERDICT: It was a fun little adventure that combines kayaking and hiking — and we were literally done before 9 a.m. You could spend a lot more time here, picnicking on the beach or fishing off the island. But if you’re looking for a challenging hike that will torch calories, this isn’t it. This is just purely fun.

***
Follow my hiking adventures #40trails at Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/thecatdish).

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