Each week, Chef Jeff Scheer decides on a new menu for Maui Chef’s Table at Millhouse Restaurant at Maui Tropical Plantation. He walks the surrounding acres of land, inspects what’s freshest, and concocts new flavors that work well with other local produce, prawns flown in from Ka‘u‘ai, and mushrooms from the Big Island.
The seven-item menu are simple bullet points of what-seems-like random elements intermittent with chef-speak. The Maui Chef of the Year might as well as handwrite them because the menu is only valid for two days: Friday and Saturday. He says the second night is usually smoother than the first because he’s worked out the kinks. Logistical kinks, that is.
At 5:30 pm on Saturday December 12th, the last of the waning sun was leaving Iao Valley. It was still bright enough to bathe in the tropical ambiance. Had my mother and I arrived earlier, we would have strolled leisurely through the plantation as a prelude to this long-awaited evening, a gift from Chris.
In this open-air unit of the Millhouse Restaurant, I quickly relaxed after sipping my drink. The dark indigo cocktail called MS. FAITH looked and tasted like magic potion, with ingredients that sounded equally exotic: Zaya Rum, Fernet Branca, Canton, Orange Peel.
Shortly after we got used to the open air restaurant, a man burst onto our table and introduced himself as the restaurant manager. Francesco’s Roman roots brought back fond memories of our three-week trip to Italy a few years before. My mom instantly smiled and shared her love of Rome.
As everyone had to reserve beforehand, we wondered why our table had been set for three, though we had an unobstructed view of the open kitchen. Just when everything was about to start, a dark-haired young lady got seated at our table. After shaking hands, we promptly started chatting about the best restaurants on Maui and the price comparisons with Oahu, where she had lived for many years.
Maui, as it turns out, is more expensive than Oahu. We have fewer people. We have less choice. But it does not mean that the quality is any less.
At this point, I was grateful for my earlier request of Francesco to turn down the music volume. For events like this, the easier we could hear each other, the longer we’d chat. Naturally, the longer we chatted, the more we’d drink. And so on, so forth.
The first course arrived a bit sooner than expected. It was not on the menu. Was this something Chef Scheer decided impromptu? Whatever it was called and whatever it contained, the verdict was that the chef was in a good mood and we were lucky to get this bonus dish.
When the first amuse-bouche appeared, I nearly gasped. I’m used to seeing a whole egg on the breakfast plate, but not for dinner, and certainly not with grilled fennel. Yet, the poached egg white and fennel seemed to agree with each other. [I gave my egg yolk to my mother — I refuse to eat egg yolk, period.]
After each course was presented, the master chef lowered the music volume and spoke into the microphone. He was much younger than I had expected. How did he get to have such freedom to create and an audience eager to indulge in his weekly creations?
The second course was more to my liking: vegetarian and very colorful. Now, I’m not a food critic, so I don’t have the words or the memory to describe what it tasted like. So forgive me, when I just say — it was very tasty. It was more than the unfamiliar taste (of each course). Rather, it was the unfamiliar texture that went with the taste. Crunchy kale, for instance.
As each dish surprised me, I began to read the menu more closely. Could I anticipate what the young master chef from Ohio would do with the ingredients listed? There’s only one way to tell. See the process.
It was a delicate and slow process. How much time did the chef and his assistants prepare behind the scenes? This was not Chinese stir-fry. Each item on the plate was a result of a complicated nested loop.
The third course (photo above) was faintly sweet. I liked it. The fourth course was a special stuffed ravioli in soup, also slightly sweet. Chef Scheer explained that they had to make some rules about the kind of dishes they’d introduce and which order they came in, after experimenting for several months. The fourth is always a pasta dish.
The fifth is always a seafood dish. Although I was tested allergic to shrimp, I pretended I wasn’t. Afterwards, my mother and I nodded to each other in silence — it was the best dish.
Two more dishes and game over. What could possibly follow my favorite dish?
My mother and I both agreed. Had this been the first thing served, we would have licked the plate clean. It didn’t occur to me to ask for a doggy bag. As I write this now, I’m salivating for the left-over bites that I left behind because I had become too full.
The seventh and last amuse-bouche was as surprising as the first. The dessert was more salty than sweet. Amusing indeed. The texture was equally complex: creamy, crunchy, custardy, and bread-like. I’ve never had a dessert like that before, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Interesting.
All evening I thought of the restaurant in Amsterdam I went to on a date, nearly fifteen years ago. There was a different menu every night. But there was just one menu: a starter, an entree, and dessert. You could bring your own alcohol, but you must reserve because it’s always full. How opposite to Chinese menus whose numerous categories make it difficult to choose!
As the evening came to a close, almost three hours later, I was glad to have asked the General Manager if there would be a kama‘aina rate someday. Francesco said yes. Someday.
In the meantime, you can call or book online. Don’t miss the video on their website!