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Hibachi hanger steak

Back to Basics

by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Nina Kuna | Hawai'i magazine | July 7, 2014

“Come my house. Eat.” Unabashedly defiant of standard grammar, the pidgin motto of Wailea’s newest restaurant gives hint that dinner at Migrant Maui is going to be deliciously different. Tables are set with minimalist elegance, complemented by a bowl of chicharrones and Hawaiian chili-pepper water—homespun fare for this well-heeled address on Maui’s South Shore.

Migrant is the latest collaboration between award-winning restaurateur Mark Ellman and famed music producer Shep Gordon. In the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort and Spa lobby, it’s nestled up next to the duo’s other dynamite restaurant, Mala Wailea. Celebrity sightings are frequent occurrences here—everyone from Alice Cooper to Charlie Sheen pops in for a bite with friends. But the real star power is in the kitchen.

Most people dining here are already fans of Sheldon Simeon, having fallen for the Hawai‘i born-and-raised chef when he was a contestant on Top Chef: Seattle. They followed him here from his last restaurant, Star Noodle, where the waitlist now exceeds two hours. Now, in the celebrity-splashed environs of Wailea, the adventurous chef is giving the local-style Hawaiian and Filipino dishes of his childhood a gourmet makeover.

Chef Simeon’s trademark grin is twice as infectious in person. He flashes one as I take a seat and says, “Pretty awesome, huh? People eating local food in Wailea!”

And, as he says, it is awesome. Simeon’s straightforward menu allows visitors to experience new flavor profiles, while those of us who grew up here can savor traditional favorites expertly reinvented.

My guest and I start with the oyster shooters. Swimming in calamansi lime juice, housemade sambal, and a dash of shoyu, the Hood Canal oysters are fresh and firm. I slurp one down and am transported to my childhood. This is how my sisters and I ate ‘opihi (limpets) on weekend camping trips, only we weren’t savvy enough to squeeze calamansi lime on top. It makes all the difference! I want to order a dozen more, but restrain myself.

Our waitress is cheerful, relaxed and competent. She recommends the kale salad, which is big enough to share. The combination doesn’t sound like it should work: organic kale, miso dressing, pickled cucumbers, pumpkin seeds and dried figs. One mouthful proves the opposite—it’s inspired. The rich, earthy miso liberally massaged into the kale imparts a surprising amount of umami for a salad. Bites that contain sweet chunks of fig are elevated to perfection.

Next up is a true local staple: fat chow fun. Simeon makes his noodles in-house. They’re extra-thick, chewy and delicious, reminiscent of gnocchi. He tosses them with morsels of roast pork, braised pipinola shoots and halved cherry tomatoes that burst with ripeness on the tongue. A sprinkling of finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese adds depth, magically weaving the dish together.

Clean, bright flavors characterize Simeon’s style. His hibachi hanger steak is an exceptional example. He dresses tender, bright pink slices of beef with watercress leaves, pickled shallots, red chile wheels and nouc cham—a Vietnamese fish sauce that’s simultaneously sweet, sour, salty and spicy. The meat’s char provides a slight bitterness, lighting up the entire tongue.

Simeon is the real thing; to specials such as the grilled amaebi (sweet shrimp), he adds rooftop preserved lemon—which he baked in the sun above his own home.

For dessert, it’s a tough choice between purple sweet potato ice cream and a classic lemon bar reimagined with passion fruit. My guest is delighted with Migrant’s petit fours: cascaron and butter mochi. Both of these beloved local sweets, made with rice flour and coconut, can be dense and heavy. However, these are wonderfully light, dipped into peanut butter sauce.

The dining room’s few walls are illuminated by original artwork by Ed Lane, echoing the restaurant’s plantation-era theme. The gastropub’s atmosphere is chic and casual, with an intimate feel—for now. It’s only a matter of time before the waitlist will grow into double-digits here too. Simeon already has plans to expand. The resort’s cavernous, underutilized kitchen is one of the reasons he took the job. “The vintage equipment has such character,” he says. “The kitchen has great potential for outside events. The bones and structure are here, we just need to put energy into it.” Energy is something he has in spades.

Outside, lovebirds flirt noisily in the palms. The ocean turns various shades of sherbet as the sun sinks behind it. Everything about an evening at Migrant suggests another popular pidgin saying: “Lucky we live Hawai‘i.”

MIGRANT MAUI
Wailea Beach Marriott Resort and Spa,
3700 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea, Maui, 875.9394

Mon.-Sun., 5-10PM

Starters, $4-$22; entrees, $14-$36; noodles, $14-$23; desserts, $5-$20

Who’s There
Stylish visitors from Wailea’s tony resorts, locals hungry for Simeon’s reinterpreted island favorites, snowbirds with Maui residences

Where to Sit
Opt for the main dining room to revel in the vivid paintings of Ed Lane. Otherwise, the lanai seating offers spectacular ocean views.

What to Eat
Start off with oyster shooters and the ‘ahi avo before indulging in jazzed-up local dishes like fat chow fun, pancit noodles and sweet pork.

What to Drink
Savor Southeast Asian tropical flavors in drinks like the Palawan Press, made with Absolut Hibiskus, Thai basil and coconut water.