PAIA, Maui » For 28 years, chefs have been at the forefront of the local farm-to-table movement. Certainly, farmers and ranchers have been great collaborators, but it’s the chefs who have reaped most of the recognition.
But on Maui, a culinary revolution is in the works. As a key to their survival in the 21st century, farms are strengthening their game by taking ownership of restaurants.
In Waikapu, a former banquet hall at Maui Tropical Plantation has been transformed into The Mill House restaurant, which sources a majority of its ingredients from the plantation’s surrounding farmlands. The visitor attraction and restaurant are now at the epicenter of a multimillion-dollar residential development plan.
Hana Ranch Provisions
71 Baldwin Ave., Paia, Maui
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. daily. To-go coffee and pastries 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily
Prices: Lunch about $35 for two; dinner about $80 for two without drinks
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
And Paia is home to Hana Ranch Provisions, marking the ranch’s first foray into the restaurant business in an attempt to diversify its business. This also involves introducing products such as pickled vegetables, seasonal preserves, baked goods and, soon, a food truck.
The restaurant delivers the farm-to-table experience at its best, with equal measures of the rustic and the sophisticated. It starts with a pleasant drive out to charming Paia, with its barefoot, hippie vibe. Adjoining the restaurant is a to-go coffee shop where passers-by can pick up a cup of coffee, fresh baguettes, ulu cinnamon buns, pineapple turnovers, gluten-free brownies and other baked goods.
On the restaurant side, there’s a casual elegance to the minimalist dining room lined with pastoral photographs of Hana Ranch and a centerpiece glass bar showcasing a colorful array of the farm’s sauces and pickled produce.
In the kitchen, head chef Gary Johnson creates a simple menu highlighting — beginning to end — Hana-grown, certified organic produce and Hana Ranch grass-fed beef. Each ingredient is given the respect it’s due, so diners are not tortured by nonsensical sauces or other incongruous pairings.
Lunch comprises a short list of appetizers, salads and sandwiches, with heavier entrees reserved for dinner. There are more options in the evening, but I preferred visiting for lunch, when the natural light shining through glass windows delivers a warm, sunny ambience. At night, I didn’t feel the Maui vibe as strongly. I could have been in Portland, Ore., or Brooklyn.
The menu changes with the seasons and availability of ingredients. Recent fare included a beet carpaccio ($14 lunch/$14.50 evenings) of yellow striped Chioggia beets sliced as thin as sashimi and just as satisfying in their silkiness. The beets are topped with mustard greens and dill, then accented with the sweetness of sliced kumquats.
Great bread is hard to find in Hawaii, and here it’s well worth the $5.50 for a bowl of crusty, tender-crumbed bread served with fresh-churned cultured butter sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt.
A curry kabocha squash soup ($11.50/$12) warms the heart with its creamy texture and a balance of natural sweetness and touch of spice. It’s topped with an ulu chip, pepitas and a drizzle of cilantro oil.
More salads are available, but you’re likely to get your day’s ration of vegetables no matter what you order, even with Vietnamese beef meatballs ($15) seasoned with fish sauce, garlic, lemongrass and chili peppers, served over a Thai-style salad of green papaya slaw graced with chopped peanuts, cilantro and basil leaves.
Both lunch and dinner menus feature the restaurant’s signature Hana burger ($16/$16.50) made with grass-fed beef and served on ulu brioche that is comparable to a pretzel bun. The juicy burger is finished with caramelized onions, lettuce, cheddar and horseradish aioli, with more greens on the side.
A fried-fish sandwich ($18) is available for lunch, and I was surprised that I loved it. I have a general low opinion of fish sandwiches because so many restaurants make them an afterthought to burgers, overcooking the fish until dense and dry. At Hana Ranch Provisions, the fish was so fresh and moist it felt light as air. In keeping with the Hana-raised philosophy, the fish is sourced from Hana fishermen.
Fresh catch also appears on the dinner menu, alongside such specialties as a rib-eye steak ($48) with pohole ferns, Hamakua mushrooms, red wine jus and tomato oil.
Kauai shrimp tagliatelle ($32) is a simple, satisfying dish, the shellfish beautifully arranged, heads on but otherwise shelled, and tossed with the pasta in Hawaiian chili-spiced tomato sauce.
My favorite dish during a dinner visit was the seared ahi ($35). Again, not a typical favorite because many restaurants overdo the searing so the ahi ends up cooked through. Here, the ahi is in block form, so it stays rare inside. The blocks are arranged Stonehenge-style with stalks of Kula cauliflower around a bed of braised chicories topped with a soft-poached egg. Every bite felt like magic.
For dessert, a rosemary panna cotta is a thing of beauty to both eyes and palate, with its whisper of rosemary essence — too much would be overpowering — topped with kumquat marmalade and dark chocolate bark.
My hope is that both farm and restaurant will prosper, and the concept will expand to Oahu, where it would be a fresh addition to the dining scene, farm-to-table straight from the source.