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Kampachi tartare

In With the New

by Shannon Wianecki | Photo: Nina Kuna | Hawai'i magazine | September 5, 2013

Jojo Vasquez is without a doubt one of the most imaginative chefs working in Hawai‘i today. Blending a 6-year-old’s enthusiasm with a chemist’s precision, he finds inspiration for new dishes in everything from falling leaves to sea foam. The new executive chef of The Plantation House in Kapalua, Maui, admits to near-compulsive dedication to his craft. “I have about 237 original recipes on my phone,” says Vasquez. “I have a notepad by my bed and a recorder in my car. And,” he confesses, “I time everything.” Once he calculated how long his frozen gazpacho foam would maintain its shape on a chilled spoon­: 17 minutes—exactly long enough for a server to deliver it to the table in perfect condition.

Vasquez’s culinary ambitions were sparked as a kid growing up in Chicago; Dad ran a Chinese-Filipino catering business and Vasquez entered culinary school. In 2005, he moved to Maui to take the helm at the Banyan Tree at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, where he deployed techniques inspired by the molecular gastronomy movement: transforming lobster bisque into pink sea foam and shiso leaves into liquid marbles. These magical garnishes elevated his dishes to edible works of art and won him considerable recognition.

The toque collected numerous accolades for The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s flagship restaurant before Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto recruited him in 2008. Alongside Morimoto-san, Vasquez ricocheted around the globe from Napa to Moscow, assisting with various restaurant openings and events, appearing twice on air on Iron Chef, and finally returning to Honolulu to help launch Morimoto Waikiki.

Now comes chef Vasquez’s latest adventure: reinventing The Plantation House in Kapalua. This gorgeous restaurant is the last stop before Honoapi‘ilani Highway rounds the undeveloped corner of the West Maui Mountains. It’s a serene locale with show-stopping views in every direction. But that’s not the whole picture. Since opening in 1991, The Plantation House had served satisfying, yet predictable, Mediterranean-influenced dishes. So when the resto was snatched up by marketing mogul George Macklin last year, the savvy entrepreneur smartly turned to Vasquez to reinvent its menu. “Look at this elegant restaurant,” the chef says, waving his hand to encompass the snazzy new exhibition wine cellar, the dining room’s recently acquired oil paintings and the fully renovated kitchen. “It’s an elegant canvas and I’m excited to take its cuisine to the next level.” And that’s exactly what he’s done.

His first menu reflects his love affair with local produce. The Surfing Goat cheese appetizer is a dense and creamy pillar of locally sourced chevre adorned with savory granola and heirloom tomatoes that burst against the tongue equally sweet and acidic. The line-caught mahimahi is paired with bright baby carrots from Ho‘opono Farms, cauliflower and a luscious coconut curry. A quartet of scallops is neatly arranged atop a smear of pureed celeriac—an earthy dollop of springtime punctuated by sweet golden raisins.

The kampachi tartare arrives in the center dimple of a large, transparent saucer, looking much like the heart of a distant planet. Kampachi, a deep-sea amberjack sustainably farmed on the Kona Coast, is rich in the good kind of fats. Vasquez mixes it with flecks of wakame seaweed and a hint of lime, crowning the dish with a bright orange, peppery nasturtium flower. A shallow pool of dashi-soy is poured tableside.

Mere foie gras isn’t luxurious enough for Vasquez; he gives it an aristocratic boost with a wedge of Grand Marnier French toast drizzled with red wine that’s been reduced to a lip-smacking syrup. Sprinkled with juicy Kula strawberries and delicate micro-herbs, it’s an appetizer that could serve as a greedy gourmand’s dessert.

While Vasquez is loath to repeat past menu items, there are a few we’d love to see revived. For starters: the seafood sausage that helped earn him the title of 2012 Rising Star from Star Chefs. And the shiso spheres that accompany ruby red slices of ‘ahi sashimi. The list could go on. But even as we ruminate on past marvels, chef Vasquez is busy cooking up new ones.

The Plantation House
2000 Plantation Club Drive,
Kapalua, Maui, 669.6299,
theplantationhouse.com

Breakfast and lunch, 8am-3pm; light fare, 3-5pm; dinner, 5-9pm
Starters, $12-$18; entrees, $27-$46; desserts, $6-$14

Who’s There
Ravenous newlyweds at brunch; sun-kissed pro golfers at lunch; Vasquez’s cult following and visiting chefs taking notes at dinner

What to Order
When available, the prix fixe menu with the accompanying wine pairing is an absolute must.

Where to Sit
Above all, reserve a table by the windows.

Reservations
Time your dinner reservations to the sunset and snag a table on the lānai; the unimpeded view of Moloka‘i is spectacular.