the mill house at maui tropical plantation: farm-to-table cuisine prepared with integrity, expertise, and fearless creativity

ChefMillHouseWhen I moved here 13 years ago, the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu wasn’t on many people’s radars. Established in 1984, and geared mostly towards keiki, it was an agricultural theme park with free admission, a tram ride, and a few Hawaiian cultural demonstrations.

Fast forward to present day, and the new and improved Maui Tropical Plantation, whose current owner, Mike Atherton, has transformed the property into a veritable oasis. The tram ride is still there and, besides the drop-dead gorgeous grounds, there are shops, two ziplines, a country store, a coffee roasting company & cafe, an outdoor concert venue, Kumu Farms’ organic fruit & produce stand, and the piece de resistance—The Mill House Restaurant, which opened in March of this year.

Paying homage to the area’s sugar plantation history, the spectacular pond and fountain outside The Mill House features equipment remnants from the old Wailuku Sugar Mill: three gigantic gears sit among lush tropical foliage and tall sprays of water, while a huge cylindrical pipe creates a waterfall effect. Adjacent to the pond is the restaurant’s lanai featuring outdoor seating and a lava-rock fire pit.

Inside is a stunning open-air bar where more sugar plantation remnants have been incorporated into the decor, including huge sugar cane grabbers, flywheels, rollers, gears, and a locomotive smokestack. Two historic railroad relics—the Claus Spreckels locomotive and the Kalakaua coach car—serve as colossal room dividers separating the bar area from the main dining room.

The Claus Spreckels was the second locomotive ordered by Maui railroad magnate T.H. Hobron for the Kahului & Wailuku Railroad in September 1881. Known simply as The Claus, it transported freight and passengers over a 13-mile stretch of track running from Kahului to Wailuku, and east to Pa‘ia. The Kalakaua Car is one of six teak-sheathed passenger cars that Hawai‘i’s King David Kalakaua and his entourage traveled in for the unveiling of a statue of King Kamehameha in the Kohala District of the Big Island. Both The Claus and the Kalakaua Car are on loan to the Maui Tropical Plantation from the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum.

The Mill House’s main dining room can be described in one word—exquisite. The flooring immediately catches my eye: it’s a dazzling mélange of earth-toned porcelain tiles. Tables and chairs with clean, simples lines are constructed with warm, cinnamon-hued wood, and historical maps and lithographs grace the walls.

My friend Dan is my companion for the evening, and we’re seated at what has to be the best table in the house. Blazing tiki torches and swaying palm trees surround the picturesque duck pond, while verdant grasslands draw the eye up towards the towering West Maui Mountains. Anyone who thinks ocean views provide the best ambiance for enjoying a meal will think again after a dining experience at The Mill House.

Server Nicole welcomes us and explains Executive Chef Jeff Scheer procures nearly all the fruit and produce for his cutting-edge menu from the on-site, 60-acre organic Kumu Farm, except for tomatoes, which he obtains from Ha‘iku. “Our menu changes daily, depending upon what’s available from the farm,” she says. “Chef Jeff also brings in entire animals for butchering, using as much of the animal as he can.”

Food & Beverage Manager Lee Oren developed The Mill House’s cocktail and wine menus. I’m tempted by the Slack Key (Campari, White Koloa Rum, liliko‘i, cold-pressed sugarcane, and lemon—$14), while Dan opts for Ms. Faith (Zaya Rum, Fernet Branca, Canton, and orange peel—also $14). Both cocktails are zesty and fresh.

In the meantime, Nicole has brought some mighty tasty wheat bread, along with House Pickles ($5) that are served with a side of kimchi. Dan laughs when I can’t seem to stop eating the pickles! Who would have thought pickles could be so unbelievably delicious? I approach the kimchi with a bit of trepidation, but find it to be surprisingly delightful.

For our next course, Dan and I have selected two small plates and a pizzetta. The tomato salad ($12) is composed of juicy tomato wedges, crisp cucumber, crunchy sweet potato granola and kale chips, all sitting atop a pool of velvety cultured cream. So lusciously decadent! The Caraway Gnocchi ($12) is made with a flour and egg dough (no potato). The light-as-air little morsels are complemented by wilted greens and smoked macadamia nut pesto, with a dollop of silky brown butter curd to bring it all together. The oblong-shaped Pizzetta Harissa ($18) is topped with pickled ali‘i mushrooms, house-made mortadella, and fresh, organic greens, for a savory symphony of flavors.

Kicking back between courses, Dan and I allow our minds to drift back to days gone by with The Mill House’s pleasant background music. Songs like “Georgia on my Mind” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” enhance the restaurant’s nod to history.

There’s nothing like fresh, hand-cut pasta, and Dan and I eagerly dig into broad pappardelle noodles that have been prepared with wilted greens, pickled mustard and jalapeno, and parsley macadamia nut pesto ($16). It’s definitely swoon-worthy.

For entrees, Dan and I have chosen the Ono ($28) and the Striploin ($32). The ono is a colorful medley of fish pan-seared to a gorgeous golden brown, corn, cucumber, pohole fern, piperade, and curry oil. So ‘ono! The striploin is cooked to a perfectly pink medium rare, and sits atop zucchini, turnip, and broccolini. A sherry sabayon and smoked crème fraiche ties it all together into one soul-satisfying dish.

Chef Jeff stops by our table, clad in a whimsical railroad-striped apron. Originally from a small town in southeastern Ohio, Jeff was drawn to the kitchen at a young age, acquiring his love for cooking from his grandmother. He studied and apprenticed (both in the kitchen and in the fields) throughout California and O‘ahu before arriving on Maui. Jeff graduated from the Maui Culinary Academy in 2008, and started a small private chef business, which evolved into Maui Executive Catering and its coveted “Chef’s Table” events, which Jeff now produces at The Mill House on select weekend evenings. With the restaurant’s open-air kitchen concept, guests watch each of the seven courses being created, plated, and presented.

From the Sweets menu ($12), Dan and I have chosen to end our meal with the Milk and Honey dessert: buttermilk panna cotta, honey brittle and whip, and oatmeal crumble. And, since an evening chill has set in, Dan orders a Mill House Coffee ($14) made with 100% Maui Red Catuai Dark Roast, Tullamore Dew, Averna Amaro, and vanilla bean whipped cream. The dessert is a nice mixture of contrasting textures and flavors, and the spiked coffee packs a pleasurable punch.

After experiencing Chef Jeff’s innovative cuisine, it’s easy to see why he received the “Chef of the Year” ‘Aipono Award (sponsored by Maui No Ka ‘Oi magazine), whose winner is selected by peer vote. Chef Roger Stettler, who now leads the kitchen at Taverna in Kapalua, declared Chef Jeff to be “one of Maui’s young, rising stars who will bring Regional Hawaiian Cuisine to the next level.”

Dine at The Mill House, and you’ll happily agree.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

The Mill House Restaurant, serving fearlessly creative cuisine in an exquisite setting, under the direction of Executive Chef Jeff Scheer.

WHERE •

The Maui Tropical Plantation, 1670 Honoapi‘ilani Highway, Waikapu.

WHEN •

Lunch is served daily from 11am to 4pm; dinner nightly from 4-9pm (till 8pm Sundays)

HOW •

Reservations recommended: 270-0304; http://www.mauitropicalplantation.com. Chef’s Table events sell out regularly, so reservations are a must.

 

 

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