chef alvin savella is killing it in the kitchen at ritz-carlton, kapalua’s banyan tree restaurant

In one of his publicity photos, Chef Alvin Savella’s facial expression is intense, and he’s brandishing a purple-hued, bumpy-fleshed octopus in each hand. In another, he’s staring intently at a tangled mass of raw ramen noodles into which both hands are buried. His Instagram handle is @thekitchenassassin. It’s this fiery passion for all things culinary that landed him the position of head chef at The Banyan Tree, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s signature restaurant, in October of 2016. “Chef Savella brings a fresh perspective and boisterous personality to the already talented Banyan Tree team,” says Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua General Manager Mike Kass.

On a recent visit, Janet and I discovered Chef Savella is positively killing it in the kitchen with his imaginative new menu items. We also discovered this talented up-and-coming young chef is just as comfortable presenting his creative dishes tableside as he is making the magic happen in said kitchen. That may be due to the fact that he does local televised cooking segments on “Living 808” on KHON2 News, as well as a morning culinary show on KITV4.

Chef Savella was born and raised on Maui (he’s a 2003 graduate of Lahainaluna High School), and obtained his culinary training on the mainland. After earning an A.S. degree in culinary arts and a B.S. in culinary management at The Art Institute of California-Los Angeles, he spent the majority of his career in Southern California, most notably at Jer-ne Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey, before returning to Maui a few years ago to serve as chef de cuisine at Pulehu, An Italian Grill at the Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas. Now, back in the Ritz-Carlton ‘ohana, Chef Savella is bringing his traditional Hawaiian upbringing and extensive culinary expertise to his new role at the resort’s flagship restaurant.

You can’t beat the ambiance at The Banyan Tree. It’s situated at the lower edge of the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua property, makai side, past the swimming pool, and far away from the lobby activity. An open-air design lets in Kapalua’s cool breezes, while generous picture windows across the front give way to unobstructed views of the area’s rugged, unspoiled coastline, and the shimmering ocean beyond. Liberal use of hardwood brings a warm, homey feel to the interior, while seat cushions upholstered in a blue-and-cream Hawaiian quilt motif pay homage to our host culture. Light, contemporary background music completes the impossible-not-to-relax vibe.

One of the things Janet and I most enjoy about The Banyan Tree is its expert wait staff. These folks are professional servers whose mission is to ensure every guest has a stellar experience. Tending to our every need this evening is Dustin, who adroitly guides us through the decision-making process for our beverages and meal choices.

The Banyan Tree’s selection of “garden-to-glass” cocktails ($18 each) features fresh fruits and herbs sourced locally—some from the resort’s own two-acre organic garden. Janet is enjoying the Garden to Class (Woodford Reserve bourbon, muddled fresh Maui Gold pineapple and garden-fresh sage, in house-made Serrano chili lemon sour, a dash of Aperol and aromatic bitters, and garden fresh and savory accoutrements). She declares it to be pleasantly potent and spicy, as her cheeks take on a rosy hue. I’ve selected A Sage Request (an earthy, complex cocktail featuring Herradura Blanco tequila infused with garden-fresh hand-picked sage, muddled blueberries, and house-made local honey syrup). Served in a sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper-rimmed martini glass, this concoction gets my relaxation juices flowing pronto.

In the meantime, Dustin has brought an exquisitely delicate amuse bouche composed of Kona lobster, kim chee, and uni atop citrus truffle cream. It’s a brilliant combination that puts our palates into anticipation mode for what’s to come.

So that our cocktails don’t go straight to our heads, Dustin wisely serves Chef Savella’s signature Hawaiian sweet bread, accompanied by tangy Kula strawberry “foie gras” cracked-pepper jam, and decadent whipped Vermont butter infused with Maui’s own Surfing Goat Dairy chevre. The petite bread loaf is shaped whimsically like a toque blanche (traditional white chef hat), and is piping hot with steam rising from the glossy top. Every bite is pure comfort.

Next up is an appetizer trio: ‘Opakapaka Ceviche ($20), ‘Ahi Tuna Poke ($22), and Crispy Five-Spice Duck Buns ($17). Chef Savella incorporates calamansi juice into his ceviche for a just-right level of acidity, while young coconut and smoked chilies round out the flavor medley. The poke is stunningly spicy, and blends Maui onion, togarashi aioli, and kaffir-lime oil with luscious chunks of ‘ahi. It’s sprinkled with crunchy tempura “nibs” and coconut cilantro “air.” Both the ceviche and poke are served playfully in sardine tins with dainty utensils. The duck buns are presented in metal taco holders. You can tell just by looking at them that the crispy duck morsels will be a perfect counterpoint to the pillowy buns. The eyes don’t deceive. They’re flawlessly executed and flat-out addictive.

Chef Savella’s tableside presentation of his Kona Half Lobster Ramen ($65) is part culinary demonstration and part science experiment. Dustin has delivered to our table a hot infusion siphon. The lower portion of the device contains lobster ramen broth, while the upper vessel is filled with aromatics (ginger, cilantro, and shitake mushrooms). When the siphon is heated, the broth boils up and becomes infused with the flavors and aroma of the top container. Chef Savella tells us he discovered the siphon recently while in New York, where he saw it being used to make hot cocktails, coffee, and tea at the table, and decided it could have a culinary application. When the broth has completed the infusion process, Chef pours it into bowls containing tender chunks of lobster and ‘opakapaka, grilled maitake mushrooms, red miso butter, and truffle pesto, all sitting on a bed of ramen noodles and topped with an unctuous 63-degree egg. All I can say is wow…this is molecular gastronomy at its finest!

Our second entrée is Smoked Ribeye Steak ($65). The beef has been cold smoked, which gives it a bacony quality (yum!). A pile of grilled ali            ‘i mushrooms is heaped on top of the steak, and it’s all bathed in a rich demi-glace. And there’s more: the ribeye is served with seductive white-cheddar potatoes and savory bone marrow on the side. Janet and I thought the lobster ramen was phenomenal, but this dish stands right up there at the top as well.

Our Nilla-Wafer “Brulé” dessert ($14) is Chef Savella’s ode to his mother and grandmother. “My grandmother always had Nilla Wafers in her house, and my mother enjoyed making cheesecake using the recipe on the cookie box,” he says. Nilla wafers, apple bananas, and caramel are layered in a glass mason jar, and topped with marshmallow espuma (foam). What’s not to love here?

“Chef Savella’s creativity and passion for fresh, innovative cuisine results in beautiful and strikingly flavorful dishes that elevate the dining experience for our guests,” says resort General Manager Mike Kass. Janet and I enthusiastically agree.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

The Banyan Tree Restaurant, featuring a farm-to-fork menu incorporating the innovative cuisine of Head Chef Alvin Savella.

WHERE •

At The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. One Ritz-Carlton Drive.

WHEN •

Dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9pm.

HOW •

Reservations recommended: 665-7096; ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/kapalua-maui; opentable.com.

 

 

 

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