sugar cane maui: it’s not traditional—it’s adventurous

sugarcaneIf you live Upcountry like I do, having an opportunity to people watch from a second-floor lanai right smack in the middle of Lahaina Town is like being transported to another place. And when said people-watching is combined with top-notch cuisine artistically prepared by a French master chef, you’ve got yourself one memorable evening. It’s exactly this that awaits you at Sugar Cane Maui.

It’s been a busy work week, and my friend Susan and I are ready to kick back and relax. After welcoming us warmly, Sugar Cane Maui’s gracious hostess Jamie Lee leads us up the wood staircase, and shows us to a cozy corner table on the lanai. The table and chairs are wrought iron, but pillows and cushions have been thoughtfully placed on the chairs for comfort. It’s Friday evening in Lahaina Town, and Front Street is bustling. A solo musician nearby croons easy-listening tunes that help us unwind.

Server Brandon gives us the menu rundown, and makes several recommendations that sound so good we decide to follow most of them. From the Pupus and Small Plates section of the menu, we’ve selected Kiawe Smoked Bacon Musubi ($11.95) and Chef Chin’s Ahi Nachos ($15.95). Who is Chef Chin, you ask? It’s simply amazing to have a chef of his caliber right here on little ol’ Maui!

Born in Paris, France, and the youngest chef on record to be inducted into the prestigious “Maitres Cuisiniers de France,” Chef Philippe Chin can trace his culinary influences to being raised in a melting-pot household by his Chinese father and French mother. Chef Chin’s refined fusion cuisine sprang naturally from his upbringing. By the age of twelve, Philippe had already decided he would become a great chef. He attended the highly competitive L’Ecole Hoteliere de Paris, graduating with honors. Early in his career Chef Chin perfected his culinary skills in some of France’s finest dining establishments.

After leaving his homeland, Chef Chin cooked his way through the Caribbean, after which he relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then Augusta, Georgia. He was the recipient of numerous dining industry awards and accolades in each location. Now on Maui, Chef Chin and his brigade of culinary artists are focused on delivering a craft experience in a comfortable and fun environment.

Susan and I dig into Chef Chin’s version of musubi. Not being a fan of local-style musubi, I have a bit of trepidation going in. But Brandon had recommended it so highly, it has to be good, right? My friends, this is not musubi as you know it. Three little bundles of goodness grace the classic white plate: sushi rice shaped in rectangles are topped with house-smoked bacon, and dressed with spicy liliko‘i glaze, providing a pleasant combination of sweet, sour, and salty notes.

Can it get any better? Yes, it can! Chef Chin’s ahi nachos are visually stunning—so festive are the colors that it looks like a holiday on a plate. Perfectly seared chunks of cranberry-red ahi sit atop a bed of sesame spinach salad, surrounded by wonton chips, and bathed in a trio of aioli. Susan and I are amazed when the chips remain crisp as we devour this tasty dish. A bit of wasabi provides a hint of heat that’s just right. We’re off to an excellent start.

If you’d rather leave the selections up to Chef Chin and his crew, Sugar Cane Maui offers a five-course tasting menu composed of several popular dishes, plus a dessert sampler, for $75 per person, with a two-guest minimum.

Our culinary adventure continues with Beet and Baby Arugula Salad ($9.95) and Kula Kale salad ($10.95). For the former, Chef Chin has roasted golden beets, and combined them with Waikapu rocket arugula that’s dressed with Hawaiian chili pepper water vinaigrette and studded with three torched crostini smeared with creamy chevre (goat cheese). The peppery arugula has that fresh, just-picked quality, the beets are pleasantly earthy, and the crostini deliver a crusty contrast of texture.

The kale salad’s textures also marry well, with nuggets of Upcountry tomatoes, apples, and crushed mac nuts; roasted Maui onion vinaigrette provides the acidic counterpart. They sure know how to grow kale in Kula—these greens are unbelievably tender, not the tough and chewy kale we’ve become accustomed to, and tolerate because it’s good for us.

Brandon has brought us a plate of fresh-baked focaccia bread accompanied by a ramekin of butter with seasoned salt sprinkled on top. Oh my, the bread’s aroma alone has our mouths watering. While it’s not quite traditional focaccia bread (Chef Chin is French, after all), its pillowy texture and delectable flavor make it a winner.

For entrees, Susan and I have chosen Roasted Local Monchong Filet ($27.95) and Pacific Kai-Aina ($28.95). Brandon delivers two more beautifully plated dishes, and we eagerly dig in. A generous portion of succulent monchong that’s been seared to a lovely golden brown sits atop Kula leek and edamame fondue and sticky rice; it comes with a delightful liliko‘i buerre blanc that Chef Chin should bottle and sell, it’s that good. And for someone like me who’s not particularly fond of liliko‘i, that’s high praise.

The Kai-Aina (sea and land) combo is composed of sautéed prawns covered in sauce that definitely delivers heat; and tender sliced flat-iron steak cooked to a perfect medium rare atop a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes and Haleakala mushrooms. The dish is brought together with honey ginger reduction that’s, again, so good it should be bottled. Chef Chin is one master saucier!

Other tempting entrees on the menu include Blue Crab Crusted Chicken Breast ($25.95) with mac nut pesto risotto, edamame-tomato ragout, and bacon jam jus; Pacific Rim Lamb Osso Bucco ($32.95) with Kula root vegetable risotto, sauteed Upcountry kale (there’s that gorgeous kale again!), and garlic-Thai basil coulis; and, what I have in mind for my next visit to Sugar Cane Maui, Paniolo Coffee Crusted Filet Mignon ($34.95), with mashed Upcountry purple yams, creamed garlic spinach, and smoked Portobello mushroom sauce. Wowza.

Susan and I have a difficult time choosing a dessert from the Craft Sweets and Treats menu, but settle on Classic Crème Brulee ($8.95). We’re here to tell you this is the crème brulee of all crème brulees: a custard base so light and delicate it causes us to roll our eyes heavenward, with a caramelized raw sugar top layer that shatters in the mouth before quickly melting into one sweet sensation. This is French dessert at its finest.

And now that I’m familiar with Chef Chin’s prowess in the kitchen, I can bet the Liliko‘i Panna Cotta ($7.95) and Chocolate Lava Cake ($8.95) are winners, too.

Susan and I agree with Moe S. from Kihei who had this to say on Yelp: “Don’t waste your time wandering Front Street for a restaurant. Go directly to Sugar Cane Maui.”

–heidi pool

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