It is not very often that I get to say we have imported a restaurant from the mainland and improved on its concept. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that Hyatt Maui’s Japengo invested the time to get it right, so much so I think they have upgraded the product. Not that Japengo itself needed an upgrade, the Hyatt La Jolla California’s Japengo is included as one of San Diego’s top restaurants, but you are not going to find the same place here on Maui. Part of what makes Japengo special is the team, Executive Chef Matt Smith, Japengo Chef Gevin Utrillo and sushi chef David “Jay” Ledee love what they do and share that through these gorgeous presentations. The front of the house staff guided by Food and Beverage Director Peter Donelly and Managers Nate and Christine are there to escort you through the experience of enjoying this menu.
Japengo is nearly two restaurants in one. Occupying the former Cascades spot, the restaurant closed down for eight months to rebuild, redesign, rethink the whole concept. The seating is amazing, you have several different options, casual and elegant ocean view bar seating to gather around signature cocktails and beautiful wines, the back open air lanai that gives way to vista Lahaina town and ocean views, outdoor garden seating near the front area of the restaurant, and a chic, enclosed, air conditioned sushi bar area. I indulged in the air conditioning this time, but next time it will have to be ocean views, the sunset here is off the hook. The asian aesthetic is carefully cultivated in dark woods, river rock attributes, stone flooring, black leathers and modern “organic” designs (check out the “mushrooms” hanging over the bar). The design is seen through to the dishes and table settings: muted brown pottery, river rock chopstick rests, and ivory linens.
Two great cuisines reside side by side on the menu, there is the sushi and sashimi, and the asian fusion. Both stand up beautifully on the their own, but if you can combine them into a saimese twin dining experience you are a true gastronomist. Under the guidance of Chef Jay I started with sashimi and sushi paired with some of Japengo’s cleverly named cocktails. The moriawase is an art form for sushi chefs, a platter where they pick the fresh items to present to you, like their Scottish salmon, Spanish mackerel, mirugai (clam) and madai (king snapper). Japengo found hydroponic fresh wasabi root from the big island, and you grate it Japanese style against a shark skin board and then “sweep” off your spoils with a little bamboo brush. Fresh wasabi in this manner does not have the kick that the green blob does, it is much more subtle. The moriawase platter is fish art, be prepared to gawk, but not too long lest you insult the chef. He wants to see you shove the thick silky slabs of fish into your mouth, it always seems like you might get too much, but not so. Garnishes of daikon shaped into little nests, shiso leaf here and there, and a whole fish posed with its edible flesh ready for me to pluck at make the beauty of the platter and the tactical participation of eating it heighten all senses. Chef paired the moriawase with the rappongi fling exceptionally, the cooling cucumber and dry lime and sake linger on the palate, the first sip is sweet and gingery, it balances the fish from flavor to mouthfeel.
The fifty fifty roll is california roll on the inside with kanpachi, Scottish salmon, and lemons sliced and layered over the top of the roll. The lemons are a treat to eat whole skin and all, its not often that you can devour them this way, and they have a brilliant effect on this roll. Chef Jay says he uses Scottish salmon because it has the best flavor of all of the varieties he tried for the restaurant. The big roll is Japengo’s version of the shrimp tempura roll, accented here with tobanjan, a spicy bean condiment that I am now seeking in asian markets for my pantry. These rolls were accompanied by the tengu fizz, a passion fruit, lime juice vodka and basil cocktail, and the Shanghai heat a sauza and spicy jalapeno cilantro drink.
The starter menu has a dish called compressed watermelon and hamachi mosaic it is concept cuisine developed by Chef Utrillo using watermelon that has been pressed in the cryovac until the cells of the watermelon are firm and dense, but still juicy. Modern culinary adventures include chef’s pressing the envelope of texture and that is evident here. This dish is light and delicate the sweet of the watermelon against the gentle white hamachi flesh drawn together over Chef Jay’s secret recipe ponzu sauce. Follow up with the perfectly small kumomoto oysters farmed in the pacific northwest for another raw delight, these pop in the mouth and slide down so easy, I prefer them to their larger counterpart that seems almost clumsy and too big in comparison.
One dish that made the cut from La Jolla’s Japengo to Maui is the curry dusted calamari. It is one of the most popular dishes there and is gaining a reputation here, its a salad, its a noodle dish and a fried concoction wrapped up in one. Calamari is soaked in buttermilk and dredged in wondra flour then fried and seasoned with salt and curry powder. Then these tasty morsels are dropped on top of a potato starch noodle called harusame, with ocean salad, julienned veggies, halved grapes, and a wonderful dressing that finishes it off.
On the specialties menu grilled mahi mahi comes in a tall stack, a formed bed of forbidden rice, topped with blanched tatsoi, a Okinawan green reminiscent of a marriage of spinach and arugula, tossed in a tahini dressing, and peppered with crispy bits of pancetta, crowned with a gorgeous portion of grilled mahi and topped with a grilled lemon. I am enamored also by the large wide bowl it is served in, both good looking and utilitarian at the same time. The Jidori farm cashew chicken is also
The Kurobuta pork is also a treat, served on glass noodles with a menagerie of vegetables celebrated in hoisin sauce. Executive Chef Smith explains the mechanics behind the pig, “Snake River Farms is one of the only brands offering 100% purebred Berkshire breed pork, ensuring a consistently exquisite eating experience. Often referred to
as Kurobuta, it has been celebrated in Japan and around the world for many reasons, but especially for its marbling and flavor, which are its most distinctive characteristics. Snake River Farms American Kurobuta Pork is raised with great care on small family farms in the Midwest. No extender, no sodium and no water are ever added to our fresh pork products. American Kurobuta Pork is lean, with small, fine streaks of marbling that make each cut sweet, tender, and juicy. Unlike traditional white pork that can have a tendency to be bland and dry, American Kurobuta Pork is much darker in color and rich in flavor.”
The details on the sweet list are enchanting, the chocolate profiteroles with hazelnut gelato, caramel sauce, mac nut brittle and sea salt were not lost at the end of the evening of eats. Kona coffee ganache cake, molokai sweet potato cheesecake, mochi ice cream, and coconut creme brulee, nothing is spared or skimped from beginning to end here. The focus on locally sourced is emphasized on the the menu with a list of the players, Alii Kula Lavender, Maui Prime, Markea Prawns, Kula Farms and many more proudly named here.
Photos by Jen Russo: