A Real Crowd Pleaser

Ka­palua de­light s in ar t isanal It alian f are and stellar cock­tails at Tav­erna.

HILuxury - - PURE PALATE - EL­IZA ESCAÑO VASQUEZ

THE EARLY EVENING BRINGS A GOLDEN GLOW THAT LINGERS ABOVE ROWS OF NOR­FOLK PINES ALONG NEARBY OF­FICE Road. A quick turn l eads to Ka­palua's neigh­bor­hood trat­to­ria , Tav­erna. Be­fore the night rolls in , the room i s al­ready packed with the usual hun­gry sus­pects. Hav­ing re­cently cel­e­brated its f irst year mile­stone, the fu­ture i s promis­ing. West Maui's food- cen­tric crowd can't re­sist the al­lure of metic­u­lously pre­pared Ital­ian cui­sine and gar­den- to- glass li ba­tions in a set­ting that i s pol­ished yet low- key.

Tav­erna boasts a gor­geously ren­o­vated, open space framed by dark wood pan­els, smart light­ing and f loor- to- ceil­ing shelf par­ti­tions that l end a hand­some look. While the soft greener y from the re­sort's golf course and clus­ters of lush hik­ing trails pro­vide a stun­ning vista to en­joy, the real eye candy i s the con­crete bar from where some of Maui's most skilled bar­tenders cre­ate.

Bar man­ager Tara Fon­taine hand­crafts beau­ti­ful elixirs of syrups and shrubs, presses fresh juices, picks ex­quis­ite gar­nishes and, yes, pre­pares spe­cial ice cubes that make some of the most ex­traor­di­nar y cock­tails. Mai tais are earnestly in­fused with hazel­nut orgeat and house faler­num ; and the ne­gro­nis come with new, play­ful twists, at times swap­ping out gin for bour­bon or te­quila . In One Way Ticket, Fon­taine f inesses Buf­falo Trace bour­bon with aperol, l emon and vanilla . Egg white i s added to the mix and shaken with a spring coil to emul­sify. The frothy peach- col­ored drink i s poured into a gim­let and spritzed with Pey­chauds bit­ters atop a f lower- shaped sten­cil . It tastes as sub­lime as it looks. Fol­lowed with an amouse bouche of mush­room arancini on herba­ceous arugula pesto, and din­ner has prop­erly com­menced.

Although the space has gone through a few rein­car­na­tions, Tav­erna i s a fairly new en­deavor from a cou­ple of in­dustr y vets. Part­ners Chris Kaiwi and ex­ec­u­tive chef Roger Stet­tler hit all the clas­sic marks of Ital­ian cui­sine with a few wel­come de­tours ( Tav­erna burger on fo­cac­cia with crin­kles of pancetta and smoked mozza? Yes, please!). The menu i s well- rounded, f lit­ting from roasted tomato- fen­nel soup to a rich crab man­i­cotti to a pizza, per­fectly crisped on the edges and topped with roasted pear, bechamel and Gor­gonzola dolce. Eight types of pasta are rolled in- house daily by sous chef Chelsee An­der­son in­clud­ing the orec­chi­ette with broc­col­ini and sal­s­ic­cia or Ital­ian sausage l aden with gar­lic and an­chovy. Pan- roasted branzino with l emon brown but­ter and pars­ley i s sim­plic­ity at its

best, and the os­sobuco with gre­mo­lata i s braised to ten­der per­fec­tion and rests on vel­vety carnaroli risotto. Open un­til mid­night on some days, Tav­erna i s quite pos­si­bly the best place for a l ate- night ren­dezvous on this side of the Val­ley Isle.

Chef Roger al­most needs no in­tro­duc­tion . Hav­ing helmed cov­eted re­sort ho­tels in Thai­land, Sin­ga­pore, the Vir­gin Is­lands, and most re­cently, the im­pec­ca­ble Four Sea­sons Re­sort and Spa in Wailea, we know that the kitchen i s in good hands. Stet­tler opened Tav­erna at the heels of an­other restau­rant ven­ture, Cow Pig Bun, a cheeky gas­tro pub in Ki­hei known to host spir­ited “knife f ights” amongst chef peers, the kind where no in­juries are sus­tained, sur­prise in­gre­di­ents are in­volved and judges weigh in on dishes made on the f ly.

Stet­tler grew up in Switzer­land and, in many ways, Tav­erna's menu is a re­turn to his roots, a won­der­ful homage to his Ital­ian mother and grand­mother's cook­ing. The l asagna in par­tic­u­lar i s in­spired by his grandma's recipe. “She usu­ally stood in the kitchen for hours mak­ing her sauces,” shares Stet­tler. “She al­ways said that you can't force the mak­ing of the sauces, that it takes time and you want to make sure it sim­mers away ver y slowly, only this way will you get the full f l avor into the dish. When she used to make the tomato sauce we would al­ways tr y it with a piece of a day- old Ital­ian white bread, that was how she de­ter­mined if the sauce was ready or not.”

His grandma was pro­tec­tive of her kitchen and recipes, but he dis­cov­ered how much he en­joyed cook­ing and spent much time help­ing in the kitchen, pa­tiently l earn­ing the fam­ily 's culi­nar y tra­di­tions. “To this day, we cook to­gether when I visit them in Italy. Ev­ery­thing evolves around food and fam­ily and it al­ways hap­pens in

the kitchen, that in it­self was the mo­ti­va­tion for me to pur­sue this as a ca­reer.”

While Kaiwi's roots are f irmly planted in Hawai‘ i , his pas­sion for Ital­ian cui­sine has taken him to a culi­nar y sab­bat­i­cal even be­fore opening Tav­erna. At the time, he was a man­ag­ing part­ner at Pineap­ple Grill , an­other Ka­palua in­sti­tu­tion . “I have al­ways had the de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence the rolling coun­try hills of Tus­cany, visit and ex­pe­ri­ence the seafood dis­play at the Rialto Mar­ket in Venice, visit the Ro­man ru­ins in Rome and live, al­beit for a week, the coastal life­style of Portofino, Amalfi and the Cinque Terre re­gion,” he says. “We stayed a week at a villa in Tus­cany and at­tended a cook­ing school un­der­stand­ing the Tus­can re­gion and its cui­sine.” Dur­ing their stay, he l earned to make bal­samic vine­gar, fed the villa's pigs and chick­ens, har­vested veg­eta­bles from the gar­den for the class and hand­picked San­giovese grapes.

Kaiwi's love for the cul­ture ref l ects in the ex­u­ber­ant and well- stud­ied wine pair­ings that f lowed from Provence's Whis­per­ing An­gel rosé— a clean and fruity ex­pres­sion of Gre­nache, Rolle, Cin­sault and Syrah— to Langhe's richer va­ri­etals li ke Neb­bi­olo from the l egen­dar y Gio­vanni Rosso es­tate— com­plex and weighty enough to match the more ro­bust mains, yet still bright and up­lift­ing with de­li­cious notes of cher­ries to carr y you through dessert.

On my l ast visit, my friend Heidi and I en­joyed a tast­ing menu cre­ated for a pri­vate party. Of all the lovely dishes, one stood out— a pan- seared mahi on a square of l emon risotto cake, which rests on a vi­brant basil cream sauce, and topped with slith­ers of crisped fen­nel . The dish danced el­e­gantly with a dr y Pieropan Soave Clas­sico, a nu­anced and al­most smoky white wine made from Gar­ganega grapes grown from vol­canic ter­roir. Later, Chef Roger hap­pily shared that the dish made the sum­mer menu with the f i sh be­ing swapped for the day 's fresh catch. Le­mon risotto cake, we shall meet again.

Af­ter a sump­tu­ous feast, there's not much room l eft ex­cept for del­i­cate bites of can­noli with the ends dipped in choco­late and rolled in crushed pis­ta­chios to round up the meal in clas­sic Ital­ian fash­ion.

With chef Roger Stet t ler in t he kit chen and Tara Font aine be­hind t he bar, din­ers are t reated t o ex­per t ly prepped It alian f are and hand­craf t ed li­bat ions ( pho t os by Sean Michael Hower).

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