oceanside restaurant at the maui harbor shops: ma‘alaea welcomes the new kid on the block

BLOW_Oceanside 2015-12-28_10.49.20When brothers Paul and Preston Cheng, owners of the Texas-based company Cheng Investments, purchased the Maui Harbor Shops in Ma‘alaea last year, they knew they needed to make changes to the struggling complex. “We toured every island and checked out all the shopping centers,” Preston says. “We decided this center needed Hawaiian flowers and music, and a clean look with happy colors.”

So they installed planter boxes in the courtyard that burst with colorful flowers, placed speakers that emit the music of the Islands, and are in the process of refacing the square columns with tiki-style wood sheathing featuring carvings of Hawaiian flowers, fish, and birds.

But the biggest change so far is the new dining establishment at the center’s flagship location overlooking the harbor: Oceanside Restaurant, co-owned by the Chengs and Executive Chef Gary King, and its offshoot, Oceanside Cafe, located upstairs in the middle of the complex.

Originally from Oceanside, California, Chef Gary named the restaurant, which debuted this past December, for his childhood home. “I’ve been cooking for the past sixteen years,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to work for some of the best chefs in the world.” That roster includes Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio at Craft New York. “Chef Tom is the farm-to-table master,” says Gary.

Chef Gary draws upon his experience at Craft to present a rustic American menu with Mediterranean influences at Oceanside, which showcases the seasonal produce and seafood Maui has to offer, and supports local farmers and fishermen. Oceanside’s cuisine also mirrors what he consumes in his personal life. “This is how I feed my wife and son,” he says. “Everyone deserves to eat this way.”

The interior of the restaurant has undergone a facelift as well, a la Chef Gary. “I wanted a nautical theme to mirror our surroundings, as well as a clean, uncluttered look like the food we serve,” he says. The flooring has the color and texture of driftwood, and the blue-and-white color scheme is classic maritime. Thick nautical rope winds around the columns and handrails, and it also frames the vibrant chalkboards, one of which displays the names of 14 different Maui farms from which ingredients are sourced. Music is eclectic, ranging from Hawaiian, to Johnny Cash, to Adele.

Chef Gary had his first introduction to “island time” when he went to order tables, and found out how long it takes to ship such items here. “So I went to Home Depot and bought a bunch of pine, which is what they had the most of, and we made all the tables ourselves in seven days.”

Every morning, Chef Gary drives Upcountry to pick up the produce he’ll need for the day’s offerings, often remodeling his menus according to what’s acquirable. “If it’s not available, I’ll use something else,” he says. In a demonstration of his commitment to fresh, clean food, there’s no freezer or deep fryers at Oceanside. “I actually turned the freezer that was here before into a huge walk-in for storing fresh produce and other ingredients,” he says. All meat is broken down in-house, and the fresh fish is procured from Ma‘alaea-based fishing boats like Start Me Up.

Oceanside has yet to obtain its liquor license, so for now it’s BYOB with no corkage fee. But they do offer a nice selection of “Mocktails,” fresh juices, and other beverages such as Maui Sun Tea and Valley Isle Kombucha. Janet is dining with me this evening, and she has selected the South Side Cooler Mocktail, while I’ve chosen the PGL ($5 each). Janet’s is a lovely pale green color, composed of cucumber, mint, and lime juice. Coarse black pepper and sea salt rim the glass. My concoction is pale yellow, and composed of pineapple and lime juices, ginger, and orange peel. Both mocktails are refreshingly delightful on this balmy evening.

Server Haley has brought to our table fresh-baked buns glazed with honey, accompanied by both regular butter and an herb butter with sea salt. The buns are fragrant, warm, squishy, and sinfully delicious. We find out that Chef Gary’s wife, Emily Wallendjack, who has experience working in Paris, serves as Oceanside’s executive pastry chef, and is ably assisted by head baker Michelle. Janet and I agree if the buns are any indication, the grab-and-go Oceanside Cafe—which offers croissants, muffins, and brownies, in addition to breakfast burritos, sandwiches, coffee, tea, and kombucha—is definitely worth a stop.

To begin our meal, Janet and I have selected the Hamachi ($22) and the Beet Salad ($15). The hamachi is as lovely as it is tasty—it’s a symphony of bright pink and green: a trio of as fresh as you can get slices of hamachi sits alongside slivers of crisp watermelon radish. Essence of cucumber and parsley bring it all together. The beet salad is also visually appealing, with chunks of ruby-red beets, shaved baby carrots, and crunchy pistachios, sitting atop a silky crème fraiche that offers a pleasant peppery kick.

You don’t often see Niçoise salad on Maui menus. Janet and I ask for a half portion so we can try it without spoiling our appetites for what’s still to come. Oceanside’s version is made with luscious cubes of burgundy-colored ‘ahi that’s been seared to perfection. It’s served with white potatoes, garden-fresh halved red and yellow cherry tomatoes and crisp green beans, grated hard-boiled egg, and a delectable herb-caper vinaigrette.

For our next course, Janet and I have chosen the Spaghetti (Kaua‘i shrimp, cherry tomato, and peperoncino) and the Rigatoncini (Malama Farms pork, parmigiano reggiano, and herbs); $26 each. The spaghetti has a heavenly aroma, the shrimp are perfectly cooked, and the kick from the peperoncino is offset by a golden-brown bread crumb topping. The rigatoncini is rich and hearty, with tasty carrot bits sprinkled throughout; coriander seeds give it nutty, floral notes.

Having sampled the talents of Chef Emily earlier, Janet and I eagerly await our desserts: Hawaiian Pot de Crème ($12) and house-made Mac Nut Brittle Ice Cream ($4). The pot de crème is a sophisticated, outrageously delicious dessert—silky milk chocolate “jam” is topped with salted whipped cream and Maui coffee crumble. It’s decadence at its finest. Our other sweet selection is composed of three petite scoops of rich, velvety ice cream with nuggets of mac nut brittle underneath.

Chef Gary and Preston Cheng are determined to make Ma‘alaea a destination. “I’m here because of the Chengs’ willingness to make improvements to the shopping center,” Gary says. “We’re going to change the perception of Ma‘alaea being just a sleepy fishing village. Everyone thinks we’re going to fail, but we’re going to kill it.”

Never one to back away from a challenge, Chef Gary adds, “I knew what I was getting into. If it’s easy, I won’t do it.”

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Oceanside Restaurant, offering a rustic American menu with Mediterranean influences showcasing fresh produce and seafood from Maui. Oceanside Cafe has an assortment of grab-and-go items like Maui coffee and tea, kombucha, croissants, muffins, brownies, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches.

WHERE •

At the Maui Harbor Shops in Ma‘alaea.

WHEN •

Oceanside Restaurant is open Tuesday-Sunday for lunch from 11am to 3pm; dinner from 5 to 9pm. Oceanside Cafe is open daily from 5am to 12pm.

HOW •

Reservations: 868-3481;  Website: http://www.oceansidemaui.us; opentable.com.

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