cafe del vino: a little slice of europe in ma‘alaea

BW_CafeDelVinoI still remember the first time I ate escargots. It was at a little French restaurant in downtown San Jose, California, before that area underwent its renaissance in the late 1980s. Janice, my dining companion, announced we had to try the escargots. I was more than skeptical, thinking of slimy garden snails that come out from under cover after a rainstorm. “You’ll love them,” Janice promised. So we ordered escargots. I stabbed one of the critters with the petite fork that had been brought to our table specifically for that purpose, and with closed eyes and a pinched facial expression put it in my mouth. While Janice observed me with a knowing smile, intense garlic and butter flavors danced on my palate. The snail itself was tender, slightly chewy, and not at all scary. In fact—dare I say it—the escargots were delicious! I was hooked!

Fast forward to present day. Let’s face it…there just aren’t many opportunities on Maui to satisfy a passion for escargot. Happily, the odds for doing so increased greatly with the opening in March of Cafe del Vino at the Maui Harbor Shops in Ma‘alaea, where owner Guido Hauwaerts, and Executive Chef Danny Paquette, serve up authentic European dishes (including escargots), along with an array of tapas, pastas, seafood, and wine.

Long-time restaurateur Guido originally came to Maui in 1991 on vacation. He liked it so much, he stayed. Fans of the old Lobster Cove in Wailea will remember Guido owned and operated that restaurant from 1992 until 2005, when he moved to California and became involved with Il Piccolino in West Hollywood. Now back on Maui, Guido, who was raised in Brussels, Belgium, has developed a menu at Cafe del Vino that’s steeped with both Italian and French influences. Many of the recipes are from his mother. “She taught me you have to be consistent to keep people coming back,” he says.

Chef Danny Paquette was most recently affiliated with South Shore Tiki Lounge in Kihei, where he oversaw one of the most spotless restaurant kitchens I’ve ever seen, and produced some of the most sophisticated bar food I’ve ever eaten. Guido and Danny had worked together at the Lobster Cove, where Guido appreciated that “Danny doesn’t have a temper, and likes everything just so.”

The ambiance at Cafe del Vino is cozy, and reminiscent of a Parisian sidewalk cafe. Seating is indoors or out, and there’s a wine and tapas bar just inside the entrance. Green chair cushions, white tablecloths, and red napkins mirror the colors of the Italian flag, and liberal use of rich, dark brown wood wainscoting and trim lends an Old World touch.

Charles and I begin our meal with, drum roll please, Escargots de Bourgogne with garlic toast ($13.95). With Spanish guitar music providing a pleasant backdrop, we dive into heavenly morsels bathed in buttery, garlicky goodness. Garlic toast is a mandatory accompaniment for mopping up what remains after the escargots are consumed, because who wants to waste that seductive fusion of flavors?

Next we try the Soup du Jour ($8), which this evening is French Onion. I love French onion soup almost as much as escargots, and can’t let any opportunity to have some pass me by. This stuff is the real deal, served piping hot with a melted cheese-covered crouton floating on top. The broth has such depth of flavor, you know it’s been simmering for hours.

Guido is the consummate front-of-the-house host, and presents many of the dishes himself. This evening, he’s ably assisted by server Triana. Charles and I watch as Guido circulates among the tables, chatting up this evening’s patrons. For any request, the answer is always the same: “No problem. We take care of you.”

For our next course, we’ve ordered the Belmondo Salad ($12): Romaine lettuce is dressed with decadent blue cheese dressing, and topped with slices of luscious, perfectly ripe avocado and juicy, bright red tomatoes. The red, white, and green color scheme is another representation of the Italian flag! I sense a theme here. Anyway, this salad is to die for, and both Charles and I don’t want it to ever end.

But it does, and we’re on to our pasta course. We’ve selected the Pomodoro ($14) with fresh marinara sauce. I have a dinnerware fetish, and when our pasta dish comes in a whimsical, brightly colored bowl that beautifully showcases the contents, I nearly swoon, and tell Charles I have to find out where Guido purchased those bowls. Charles reminds me our cupboards are filled with plates and bowls, such that we could stop washing dishes for weeks and never run out. He’s no fun! Just kidding. The pasta is toothsome—perfectly al dente—and zesty from a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. A shower of parmesan shavings provide a complementary nuttiness.

At the next table, I overhear Guido describing the pasta Bolognese ($18): “It’s 99 percent ground beef—no pork—and cooked the way we do it in Italy.” Cafe del Vino is a pasta lover’s mecca. Besides the two dishes already mentioned, there’s Primavera ($16) with fresh vegetables and cream sauce; Alfredo ($20) with fresh garlic in a parmesan cream sauce; Alla Vongole ($24) with clams, red or white sauce, wine, garlic, and herbs; and Lasagne Al Forno ($18) with meat sauce. Hungry yet?

Bravely forging ahead, Charles has selected for his entre Prime New York Tenderloin au poivre vert de Madagascar ($36.95), while I’ve chosen the Fresh Island Fish Catch of the Day ($34.95). Charles’s steak is bathed in a creamy green peppercorn sauce, and served with vegetables that have been steamed with whole garlic cloves. My fish is fresh opakapaka that’s been poached, then sautéed in a buerre blanc sauce with capers, and accompanied by the same steamed vegetable medley as Charles’s dish.

Cafe del Vino offers a nightly three-course sunset dinner special, served from 5 to 6pm, for $32. This evening, it’s Caesar salad, fresh Maine lobster with a light cream sauce and touch of curry, and choice of dessert.

Speaking of dessert, this evening’s selections are spumoni ice cream, apple pie with ice cream, ice cream with berry compote, or tiramisu. That’s a lot of ice cream, but Charles and I go with the tiramisu. It’s light, creamy, and contains just the right amount of sugar to end a rich and satisfying meal.

The Maui Harbor Shops in Ma‘alaea are coming into their own these days, since being purchased by the Cheng family last year. With the addition of new eateries like Cafe del Vino, which is tucked away in the spot formerly occupied by Porto Mediterranean Grill & Pizzeria, perhaps this sleepy fishing village will finally become a dining destination.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Cafe del Vino, serving tapas, pasta, seafood, beer, wine, and spirits, in a cozy, European-style ambiance.

WHERE •

Located at The Maui Harbor Shops in Ma‘alaea

WHEN •

Open daily, except Sunday. Happy Hour is offered from 4-6pm; Three-course Sunset Special dinner is served from 5 to 6pm; regular dinner is until 9:30pm. Live music is 5:30-9pm.

 

HOW •

For reservations and more information: 868-0732; cafedelvino.com.

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