July 25, 2012 | 11:43 AMIt was a Friday, and while there wasn't a formal special occasion, I arrived early. I wanted quality time with the Pineapple Grill rock stars. I wasn't disappointed, and found new Executive Chef Isaac Bancaco gearing up for the usual Friday crowd. They apparently do swift business from the 5:30pm seating straight through to 10pm. Chris Kaiwi, the restaurant's managing partner, was busy briefing the staff, while Bancaco took a moment to show me around his showcase kitchen.
Now this coming Friday, July 27, will not be a usual night. That's when Pineapple Grill celebrates seven years as one of Kapalua's most beloved restaurants. They'll offer a special seven-course tasting menu available for seven days at $77. Bancaco, formerly from Humuhumunukunukuapua'a at the Grand Wailea (Chef Mike Lofaro accepted Bancaco's old post), has phased in a new menu for Pineapple Grill over the last month, and this will be a chance to really show it off.
"My management team and staff and their loyalty and commitment are the reason we have attained so many of our goals here," says Kaiwi. "All of us are looking forward to providing a great dining experience for many years to come. This celebration seven-course menu is our way of saying thank you and showcasing Chef Bancaco's new dishes."
Changing the menu at Kapalua's iconic Pineapple Grill restaurant was tricky, since many of the restaurant's regulars are Kapalua Golf Club members at the neighboring course. Kaiwi says the restaurant has become the Kapalua "Cheers," where the Kapalua crew come by often and have their favorites. But Chef Bancaco took on the challenge. Bancaco said he was excited to expose Pineapple Grill fans to the restyled dishes and the reception has been exceptional so far.
A local Maui boy, Bancaco went straight to culinary school after graduating from high school. Hard work during his internship at Ming Tsai's Boston Blue Ginger Restaurant led to him working alongside the James Beard Award-winning chef on Iron Chef. Tsai and Bancaco won the "Battle Duck" challenge as the first upset to Iron Chef Bobby Flay. Bancaco also worked with Chef Roy Yamaguchi at his Los Angeles Restaurant, one of the largest grossing Roy's in the world. But then Bancaco followed his roots back to Maui and the Grand Wailea.
"Bancaco is very aware of his customer," says Kaiwi. "He knows farmers personally and finds providers to his menu. He has a very refined style that brings intensity of flavor with texture but all the while he knows the customer is the best critic. We have to listen because they decide what is good."
Bancaco's second nature is to seek sustainability as the foundation of his kitchen operation. He finds ingredients growing close at hand with local farmers and purveyors, culling recipes from family and friends and putting the two together flawlessly in stunning and surprising combinations. A real foodie, Bancaco also critically considers palate and textures.
"I have family in the Napili area, so it's like coming home to work here," says Bancaco. "My cousin has a farm here in Kapalua, Manu Akana of Ho'o Pono Farms, and he works with Dave Horseman. You'll notice the names of all the farms I work with on the menu. One of the first things I added was the Monchong, a grilled fish dish. I marinate it in Evonuk farm herbs and and serve it over my grandmother's recipe potato salad, but I make it with fingerling potatoes. Dredge a bite of the Monchong through the Chinese shoyu mustard sauce and tell me what you think."
What did I think? It was exquisite. Also phenomenal is the new Ahi Pasti pupu. Bancaco takes glistening sashimi slabs of Big Eye tuna and puts them across the plate, then drizzles smoking hot Maui Olive Company extra virgin olive oil over them with a sprinkling of pipikaula, roasted beets, eggplant and grape tomato. The semi-seared ahi melts in your mouth while the veggies and beef add crunch and diversion.
One of the new items rolling out the day after I visited was new beef. Bancaco is featuring a Hawaii Island beef that is grass-fed first and then grain-fed. The outcome tones down the gamey and tough aspects of grass-fed beef with a more consistent and rounded taste.
"I am bringing in these wonderful beef cuts by a Hawaii ranchers' co-op," says Bancaco. "The decision is based on flavor. My guests have educated palates so I have to have dishes that will stand up to that. On the fish menu I was also told not to touch the beloved ahi steak dish–it's actually a recipe from Chef Joey Macadangdang, who opened the restaurant."
Macadangdang's popular pistachio and wasabi pea-crusted ahi dish is served over black rice and a bundle of beautiful chard, though Bancaco tweaked it just a bit by offering yin and yang wasabi and shoyu based sauces.
"Pineapple Grill is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of regulars," says Bancaco. "But the number one reason for my jump is the wonderful front of the house staff. These are professionals."
200 Kapalua Dr.
Maui's Intrepid Food Taster: Will Eat and Drink Anything
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