September 19, 2012 | 01:04 PMMoana Cafe has been a mainstay dining option in Paia for many years. It's known for their delectable pastries, breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule and nightlife. So when they closed last May, I was gravely disappointed. But my fears proved short lived when Moana reopened a few weeks later under new owners David and Yulie Law.
"My husband and I are entrepreneurs, mainly in the product design sector in the mainland," says Yulie. "We moved to Maui over a year ago and since our companies are able to run on its own or can be worked remotely, we wanted to live here on the North Shore. Since our kids are young and ready for school, we knew we had to set our foot down somewhere, and have chosen Paia to call 'home.' We have made some major changes initially to the dining area. We removed some of the dark booths by bringing in some fine tables, chairs and bar stools. A fresh coat of paint always does wonders to brighten up the place. Add in some air conditioning units that work, and we retuned and replaced our kitchen appliances so that they all work properly and efficiently!"
With its new look, the bistro now has a clean, stylish, urban vibe, like I just dropped into a Noe Valley cafe in San Francisco. The acoustics in the dining room reverberate so that conversations over the cement floors and the clanking in the open kitchen keep the room sounding lively. I like the new leather chairs and the high tops along the window–perfect for Paia people-watching from inside their climate controlled dining room.
The Laws wasted no time putting together their dream team at the restaurant. Helen Hong is the new manager, Lokelani Sribura is the baker, James Walworth is the chef and James Shoemaker is at the bar. The menu went through a complete redesign, with family-style dining at dinner, and an added Asian flair with more focus on farm-to-table and share plates.
"We have had the pleasure of having both Helen Hong and James Walworth cater many of our private parties and knew we found some true gems right under our noses," says Yulie. "We asked them to join us on our adventures here in Maui and found that a family friendly restaurant was desirable using the bountiful fruits and vegetables grown locally. It's right up their alley as far as food styles, philosophy and presentation. People are bored of the same old, same old. We're constantly trying out different flavors, introducing it to our patrons, using what's seasonal and being able to just be 'out there' with our combinations of flavors that explode in your mouth."
Sribura bakes an array of pastries that you can get anytime from the case at the door. They also offer European pastries and American standards. But every time I'm there, the mac-nut sticky buns with cream cheese frosting fly out the door, and at dinner the Lilikoi cheesecake seems to appear on all the tables. Sribura says she graduated from the Maui Culinary Academy and continues to absorb tricks of the trade from her colleagues.
"Creating specialty cakes has to be one of my favorite things to do," she says. "It's art work that is specifically made for that customer. Seeing their visions made into a reality, and knowing that I was a part of that special occasion makes me happy."
Hong and Walworth both contributed family recipes to the dinner menu, making an innovative mix of share plates, sides and appetizers. It's a build-your-own meal concept, with starters like puffed nori, salads, chicken sticks and the ahi poke tostada staving off hunger while you wait for the big share plates like Thai orange curry, Korean pot roast or tamarind pork ribs. The share sides feature lots of veggie options picked from the bounty of Hawaii farms: zucchini and onion, green beans, braised greens, kimchi and purple sweet potato.
"Both my paternal and maternal sides of my family have a love of food, eating, cooking and experimenting," says Hong. "The puffed rice nori came from an Aunt in Korea, as a gift only with instructions to fry until crisp and puffy. I had no idea what the result would be and was pleasantly surprised. My mother likes to play with flavors. She incorporates what is accessible in the US and applies it to Korean food. The kimchi we have at the restaurant is based on my mom's basic recipe but with room and encouragement to experiment. For instance, instead of using Asian pear or apple to start the fermentation, we use pineapple, which results in a tangier kimchi. We also played with Daikon radish kimchi with orange juice and zest and are always looking for the next vegetable to kimichi.
The resulting dinner meals you can put together at Moana could be different each time you go. The puffed rice nori is one of the most unique dishes I've tried, and the kids at our table loved it so much that we had to order it twice. The seasoned seaweed sheets are somehow battered and deep fried as crisp as a potato chip.
Their breakfast menu stuck to the homestyle favorites and offer no surprises. Starting at 8am, you can get home fries, eggs, pancakes, French toast, omelets with fresh veggies and savory meats, loco moco and Eggs Benedict (breakfast is served until 2pm). For lunch, there are healthy standards, salads, soups, Saimin, wraps burgers and sandwiches.
Chef Walworth says his most popular dishes are the ahi poke tostada, pork ribs flavored with tamarind and cinnamon, a salad of papaya and avocado tossed with ribbons of lacianato kale and the curry.
"My family cooked at home the majority of the time," he says. "My parents were always growing a vegetable garden even in the face of short growing seasons, grasshopper plague, or other obstacles we faced. The food wasn't super fancy, but we had an appreciation for fresh produce and also for exploring different cuisines. I owe a lot of my interest in cooking to my family. My dad did most of the cooking at home, and during the summer when we managed to harvest some zucchini, he would sauté them with onions and garlic and top them with Parmesan. It was a favorite of mine, and since Maui produces fresh zucchini and onions almost year round, I had to put it on the menu, but with the twist of black garlic."
The Laws are excited to be a part of the Paia scene. They hope their philosophy at the restaurant will serve them for years to come.
"We have five core values," says Yulie. "Fun, collaborative, unpretentious, explore and evolve. We are doing that at the front and back of the house, in our food, the location, the physical space... basically in everything we do and touch."
MOANA BAKERY & CAFE
71 Baldwin Ave., Paia
Maui's Intrepid Food Taster: Will Eat and Drink Anything
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