taverna urban drinks + italian eats: affordable, family-friendly dining in kapalua

Taverna_MMH_5099Chris Kaiwi, Roger Stettler, and Greg Shepherd know a thing or two about operating a restaurant. Kaiwi could be aptly nicknamed “Mr. Kapalua,” having spent the past 10 ­­years managing The Pineapple Grill and the Plantation House. Stettler completed a ten-year stint as executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea before opening, with Shepherd, the gastropub Cow Pig Bun in Kihei in September of 2014. Shepherd has more than 20 years’ experience managing first-class dining venues in California, Las Vegas, and Hawai‘i, including Ka‘ana Kitchen at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort.

Now this talented trio has collaborated to bring a brand-new dining experience to Kapalua Resort: Taverna Urban Drinks + Italian Eats, which opened in March of this year in a prime location at the Kapalua Adventure Center.

It’s a blustery evening in Kapalua when Charles and I arrive at Taverna. The restaurant’s rustic, yet chic interior is both cozy and welcoming. Hostess Gwen is also welcoming, and she shows us to our table overlooking Kapalua Golf Academy’s lush, green practice area.

Our server, Steve, is ably assisted this evening by Jose. Given the weather, Charles is in the mood for hot tea, which Jose brings right over. The nicely curated selection of teas includes tempting choices like Earl Grey, Egyptian Chamomile, and Tahitian Breeze. After perusing the cocktail menu created by Greg Shepherd, I decide on Liquid Assets (Skyy Vodka, Salers, cucumber, lime, and lemon basil—$13). Charles’s tea hits the spot, while I find my cocktail to be a refreshing cross between a lemon drop martini and a Tom Collins, with a delightful fresh cucumber aroma.

Taverna’s interior boasts singed wood paneling throughout, brown and burnt orange bench seating in the center, and tables along the perimeter, including several high tops. The bar is a work of art: a ginormous cream-colored polished concrete rectangle that seats 40 with full service. Overhead, flat-screen TVs air various sports competitions with the sound muted. Easy-listening favorites playing in the bar and dining area and soft lighting throughout lend a soothing aspect to the dining experience.

The menu at Taverna has something to please everyone. A visitor could eat here every night of their vacation and take a completely different approach each time. Chef Roger Stettler’s homey cuisine is a tribute to his Italian mother, who inspired him to begin cooking and, later, pursue a culinary career. Born in Bern, Switzerland, Chef Roger earned a chef degree after completing the apprenticeship program at Switzerland’s prestigious Hotel Kulm Arosa, and went on to serve as executive chef at five-star hotels in Thailand, Singapore, and the Virgin Islands.

Charles and I are more than ready to sample Chef Roger’s creations. We begin with Beef Carpaccio ($15): thinly sliced tender raw beef served with silky extra virgin olive oil, tangy Meyer lemon, slivers of nutty shaved parmesan, and a mound of peppery arugula. It’s a slice of heaven on a plate!

Next we dive into the Minestrone ($10). Server Steve says the mark of a great Italian chef is his or her minestrone. Chef Roger definitely hits the mark. His minestrone is the stuff dreams are made of: a bright orange-red rich tomato vegetable broth with a crazy-good depth of flavor is chock-full of goodies like white beans and wagon-wheel pasta (childhood memories, anyone?). It’s topped with an herbaceous basil pesto and grated parmesan, and served with a crunchy parmesan crostini. You want soul satisfying? You’ve got it with this soup.

Restaurant Manager Aaron Wong stops by to check on us. He tells us he’s a local boy who grew up in Ha‘iku, and he’s worked at top Maui Italian restaurants such as Ferraro’s at the Four Seasons Resort, and Capische? at Hotel Wailea. But this is his first time opening a restaurant. “It took us four months, and a lot of elbow grease, but it’s so worth it,” he says. “It’s awesome to have everything brand new. And our kitchen is so big, it’s comparable to what you’d find in a hotel restaurant.”

Aaron is especially enthusiastic about Taverna’s Rational Self Cooking Center, whose manufacturer bills it as “the only cooking system with five senses.” Aaron says the Rational is especially useful for baking their house-made focaccia bread. “The Rational adjusts the humidity, temperature, air speed, and baking time so the bread comes out perfect every time.”

I believe there’s an unwritten law that when you dine at an Italian restaurant you must have pasta. Steve tempts us with this evening’s special: house-made gnocchi with sautéed shrimp, parmesan, and pesto cream sauce ($24). Sold. My friends, there is gnocchi, and then there’s this gnocchi—light-as-a-feather pasta pillows are smothered in a gorgeous pale-green pesto cream sauce, with three plump, perfectly cooked shrimp and a sprinkling of micro greens as the crowning glory.

Charles is a huge chicken aficionado, so for his entree he’s selected the Stone Oven Roasted Half Chicken ($25). I’m in the mood for fish, so when Steve tells me this evening’s Chef’s Local Catch ($30) is monchong, I’m in. Charles’s chicken has been roasted to a perfect golden brown. It’s served atop a generous helping of creamy cheese polenta, which is dotted with slices of marinated roasted tomatoes. It’s a mighty triumvirate of exquisite flavors and textures.

My monchong is uber moist and flaky. It’s bathed in a delightful olive-caper relish with Ha‘iku tomato oil; beneath the fish is a sweet and sour eggplant agrodolce. I’m a sucker for olives and capers, and the monchong stand up well to the assertiveness of the acidic relish, as well as the agrodolce.

Greg Shepherd has put together an impressive wine program, with both foreign and domestic selections. The libations menu, in addition to ten hand-crafted specialty cocktails, includes spritzers, negronis, bottles of craft beer, and beers on tap, including Maui Brewing Co.’s Bikini Blonde Lager and Pau Hana Pilsner.

Keiki diners at Taverna have their very own menu, titled “Che Figata!” (meaning “what a cool thing!” in Italian). The nostalgic wagon-wheel pasta that’s also in Chef Roger’s minestrone makes an appearance in three of the selections (with meatballs—$9; with marinara sauce—$7; or with Alfredo sauce—$7). There’s also Margherita pizza ($7), chicken fritters ($8), and a few other kid-friendly dishes.

Charles and I finish our meal on a sweet note with Tiramisu ($6). It’s wickedly delicious, and just the right size for that little taste of sugar you need after a dinner packed with rich, full flavors. Taverna’s dessert menu also contains other Italian classics like Affogato ($6), Canoli ($6), and Panna Cotta ($6).

Next time, we’ll have to check out Taverna’s pizzas made in their wood-fired pizza oven. The selections range from the traditional Pizza Margherita with tomato, mozzarella, and basil ($14), to Taverna Pizza with duck confit, pineapple jam, red onions, and fontina cheese ($15), to the Carnevor Pizza with pepperoni, Italian sausage, prosciutto, marinara, and mozzarella ($16).

Manager Aaron says Taverna is selling out every night, and it’s easy to see why. Server Steve tells us, “People say all the time, ‘Finally…an Italian restaurant in Kapalua!’”

Bravo, Taverna! Uno non può pensare bene, amare bene, dormire bene, se non ha mangiato bene (One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well).

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Taverna Urban Drinks + Italian Eats, serving affordable, family-friendly traditional Italian cuisine in a rustic, welcoming environment.

WHERE •

2000 Village Rd., Kapalua

(in the Kapalua Adventure Center).

WHEN •

Taverna serves lunch daily from 11am to 2:30pm; dinner is served nightly from 5:30pm to close; Sundays feature Chef Roger Stettler’s ala carte brunch menu from 9am to 2:30pm.

HOW •

For reservations: 667-CIAO (2426);

http://www.tavernamaui.com.

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