One of the most memorable meals we’ve had at Chef David Paul Johnson’s table started with a bean soup so hearty and creamy that we actually scraped the bottom of the bowl. The black beans, earthy-sweet and tender, were completely pulverized by a blending that lasted, according to the waitress, for at least fifteen minutes. The texture of the soup was a silky smooth cream. The crème fraiche dollop on top, when mixed in, gave a wonderful tangy counterbalance to the warm spices in the soup. Every once in a while, a dish is both perfectly balanced in flavor — earthy, sweet, spicy, pungent, salty — and also is utterly simple and straightforward. In other words: perfect. This soup is one of those dishes.
David Paul is known for bold flavors and fresh ingredients, and his menu changes with the seasons and the available produce, so the soup may not be on the menu when you visit. Every time we’ve been, it looks like a completely different menu, although there are always a few favorites from his previous menu at David Paul’s Lahaina Grill (under different ownership and now named Lahaina Grill).
As mentioned, the menu is extensive, and if it seems too much to wade through the descriptions of each dish, you might try the tasting menu, which includes that evening’s nine featured items as a four course menu. It usually includes the dishes Chef is most excited about that evening, with the most seasonal ingredients and the nicest combinations of flavors. The trick is that the whole table must order it, presumably for the kitchen’s timing. It’s an excellent way to sample a wide range of dishes without having to choose. Some substitutions can be made — for instance, we usually can convince them to include our favorite Triple Berry Pie on the dessert course. Although some find the portions too small, we find the meal more than enough food (how can you not be satisfied with four entrées?). At $75 per person at press time, this is a good value.
It is hard to comment on specific dishes without running the risk of disappointing you later if they’re not there, but we have to write something, so here you go:
We love the cool, spicy watermelon gazpacho. When you sip from the lip of the martini glass, the first flavor to step forward is the intense watermelon, concentrated and sugary, which gently transforms itself to savory and then leaves a spicy backsplash that is intense but terribly satisfying.
We also have enjoyed the butternut squash raviolis stuffed with mascarpone cheese and topped with a small piece of lobster. The decadent textures combined with the luxurious flavors … we can’t decide if this is a pasta, a main course, or a dessert (or all three).
Do not overlook the salads, which are just-picked fresh; we particularly love those involving diced roasted beets.
The pan-roasted seared snapper has been on the menu since day one — in fact, before the restaurant opened. Chef David Paul entered the recipe in the 2009 Maui Onion Festival cook-off and won top honors. It’s easy to see (or taste) why. Hawaiian snappers, such as the delicate opakapaka, rank among the Islands’ most delicious fish. Flaky, lightly perfumed of the sea, and with a more than adequate fat content, they offer an excellent platform for a sophisticated dish such as this one. The fish is roasted in olive oil, rendering it meltingly moist. It’s laid on a soft pillow of rich and creamy polenta, surrounded by Maui onion jus. Magenta pickled onions crown the elegant presentation. With a biteful of fish, polenta, and jus we again experience that perfect mixture of earthy, sweet, spicy, pungent, and salty. A hint of truffle oil saturates the polenta, which is irresistible: baby food for the gods.
This brings us to a slight beef we have with the chef: an over-indulgence in truffle oil. There were at least six truffle-infused items on the menu at our last visit. This powerful, unctuous flavoring can elevate an ordinary dish to stardom (as in Sansei’s truffle ramen, or the abovementioned polenta), but it can also pounce all over subtle flavors, trampling them with a single overpowering note. Truffle oil, while boosted by a sliver or two of actual truffle, is, for the most part, an artificial flavor. Our taste buds recognize this. When used sparingly, it’s a fine exclamation point. In excess, either in a single dish or spread across a menu, it’s too many exclamation points!!!!
Also, in the past, we’ve loved the chef’s flamboyant use of garnishes. Perhaps it’s the slow economy, perhaps a more sober mentality, but he seems to have restrained himself somewhat. Where are the crisp artichoke leaves, the parti-colored crucifers? The dishes taste just as decadent without the decoration, but we like it when chefs take extra steps to wow all of our senses.
Desserts are generally worthwhile, and Molly’s favorite, Triple Berry Pie, is almost always available. Other than the food, there is a good wine list with dozens of wines by the glass. You can also visit their wine cellar to shop on your own and see the labels (all bottles are priced). This is a really fun way to pick your poison, and it makes good eye candy on the way to the elegantly appointed bathrooms.
The classy, contemporary restaurant is absolutely beautiful. The muted blues, greens, and mustards on the walls, the natural slate tiles on the lanai, the big mirrors, the exhibition kitchen, and the big square white plates remind us of upscale casual eateries in our old haunts. The view, however, is all Maui. If you sit on the open air lanai you will see one of the best wide-open views of Lahaina Harbor.
Timing continues to be an issue with service at David Paul’s Island Grill. While each server we’ve encountered is both knowledgeable and helpful, there is something seriously off about the pacing at this restaurant. It feels like every course comes four to five minutes (and sometimes longer) later than it should, and while water is poured immediately by the hostess, the first drinks and the bread come late. This could be caused by a slow kitchen, or a staff that hasn’t yet set a successful rhythm, or both … but in any case, it’s a noticeable flaw and a consistent complaint from readers.
Come to think of it, we do have one other issue with David Paul’s Island Grill. We think it should be located in Kihei, closer to our home.
Address: 900 Front St., Lahaina, West Maui
Location: Near Warren & Annabelle’s and Hard Rock Café
Hours: Su-Th 5pm – 10pm, F-Sa 5pm – Midnight
Parking: Validated for Lahaina Center parking