As far as Hawaii’s dining scene has progressed in the past 30 years, chef Sheldon Simeon contends restaurants still present an idealized version of Hawaii’s people and culture, a Hollywood version that we thought we had transcended a generation ago.
“A lot of visitors have this picture of palm trees and white sandy beach and hula skirts, mangoes and pineapples, all of that, and we’ve created this destination to support that idea,” Simeon said. “So we play that role and then we go back home to our communities and play a different role. We’re getting to the point where we’re asking, ‘Hey, what are we really sharing? What is the personal story that we really want to share with our visitors?’”
Thinking about that question led to the creation of Lineage, the restaurant the “Top Chef” alum is slated to open at The Shops of Wailea on Oct. 15.
During a preview of the menu hosted at Basalt in Waikiki last week, food writers sipped chili pepper water, just as Simeon did while growing up in Hilo, and sampled such fare as turkey tail adobo with shoyu vinegar tare and Maui Flying Saucers, which he’d never heard of until he moved to the Valley Isle and attended his first Maui County Fair. He found a machine to duplicate those disc-shaped Hot Pocket- style pressed sandwiches — which he fills with Maui Cattle Co. beef goulash and Kraft American cheese Singles.
“That’s a piece of nostalgia right there,” he said. “Lineage is a snapshot of our community, of our upbringing in Hawaii, and kind of just putting it on the plate.”
Traveling has helped him identify what is lacking here. “You can go into restaurants in different regions and really get a snapshot of what the whole region is doing. You go to the South and get barbecue or to the Pacific Northwest and you have amazing seafood. Here in Hawaii, to (get the full local experience) you need to get invited to someone’s home, go to a festival like a county fair or bon dance. Those community-driven memories and moments are not really represented in a restaurant.”
The chef aims to bridge the gap between what visitors and locals eat.
A prime example is his Bottom of the Plate Lunch, which is exactly what anyone who grew up local would imagine it to be.
“You tell any local person about that moment and their eyes light up. It’s like, ‘Yup, that’s so delicious.’ Everybody scrapes that part and eats it,” Simeon said. “That’s my favorite part, when you get all the drippings from the kalbi, or the teriyaki with the mayonnaise, and some little pieces of rice and sesame seeds. We’re just trying to make that moment into the best dish.”
His salad comprises shredded cabbage harvested in Kula, smoked beef fat to mimic kalbi flavor, and Simeon said, “We literally make the best macaroni salad that we can, put it in the blender and make it into an aioli, and then we pour kalbi vinaigrette over it, and it’s The Bottom of the Plate Lunch.
“Visitors may be like, ‘What is this?’ … Unless you had a plate lunch in Hawaii, you’re not going to connect to it. Nonetheless, the dish is gonna be delicious.”
Simeon’s first foray away from home came by accident, when he needed a ride home from Leeward Community College, where he was enrolled in the culinary program more than 20 years ago.
“My friend said, ‘I gotta go to this interview for this internship. If you can wait I can take you home afterward.’”
Simeon waited, and when his friend emerged, the interviewer invited him to consider a culinary internship at Disney World as well. Simeon’s concern was the cost of plane fare and housing, but when he learned Disney would pick up those expenses, he packed his bags.
While cooking in Florida, he reminisced about the foods he missed back home.
“You ever have a grandma or auntie or somebody that passed and you reminisce about what they cooked? … Or you ever ask a friend, ‘Remember when we used to go down to Hakalau River and pick those pohole ferns?’ Or, ‘Remember when we used to go to Keeau and eat guavas?’”
Although few people grow up with that kind of intimacy with nature today, Simeon said, those moments are unique to Hawaii and rarely brought to the forefront. “Lineage is all about those moments we want to capture that are special to Hawaii.”
One of his new restaurant’s features will be cart service that allows people to grab a small bite quickly.
“It’s like when you go to a relative’s house or auntie’s house. She no even say hello to you. Instead she says, ‘Hey come and eat.’ So we want you to come into the restaurant and have a bite of something to eat right off the bat.”
Some of these snacks may include boiled peanuts or pickled garlic and pipinola (chayote), which he harvests Upcountry.
“Sapote, chayote, it’s pig’s food, poor man’s food, but whatever we have we’re gonna share it with you because we’re neighbors. It all goes back to the story of the plantation kau kau tin, my dad sharing his adobo
with a Japanese family and them giving him their nishime. We don’t always get to do that, but it’s all about the sharing and the community of it.”
True to his word, the food presented at the preview managed to be creative, but appealing to the local palate. The 17-course menu started with snacks. First, boiled peanuts, dressed with oxtail soup spices such as star anise and cinnamon, plus orange rinds and cilantro.
The food writers around me—usually a jaded lot—swooned over the nostalgia of won-ton pi chips from Hilo’s Maebo Noodle Factory, served with kim chee dip. I liked the sprinkling of dehydrated kim chee and garlic powder on top.
Next came chicharrones that could be dipped into chili pepper water, or, as Simeon instructed, chased with a sip of the spicy liquid, Hilo family style.
Maui Flying Saucers were a hit, as well as cone sushi, which has never been my favorite food. But because everyone around me was raving about it, I took a bite and was sold on this version, filled with salmon-fat rice and salty bursts of ikura. I ended up eating the whole thing.
The Bottom of the Plate Lunch was a charmer, tasting exactly like the real deal, thanks to the mac salad aioli. Sweet cascaron — the Filipino coconut and mochi-style dessert — was made savory with an accompaniment of shiokoji chicken-liver pate; and Simeon’s family recipe for pork and peas was a joy, with a depth of flavor that one doesn’t get in a typical Filipino restaurant.
Part of the family secret was revealed when he said, “That’s exactly the recipe that I grew up eating and cooking all my life, down to the frozen peas and the canned cream of mushroom.”
Katsu curry was another keeper, made for the nonmeat eater with fried cauliflower.
The highlight was crispy pata, the juicy, crisp-skinned pork served with finadene, a Guamanian dipping sauce, and lettuce for wrapping. I wished I could have eaten more, but it came too late in the meal.
The only dish that didn’t work for me was the overly sweet turkey tails adobo, but I may be in the minority here. As Simeon says, “sugar and shoyu” are part of the local DNA.
The restaurant’s bar menu follows the same philosophy of embracing the local, with such cocktails as the refreshing Sinigang Sling of Brokers gin, tamarind shrub, lime, tonic and salt; or the Panda Express, incorporating adobo oil with Bozal mezcal, Knob Creek bourbon, grilled pineapple shrub, lemon, red wine and egg white.
“First and foremost, we just want people to come and have a good time and enjoy good food and drink good drinks,” Simeon said. “The real goal is to build upon memories and create memories.”
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.