Nestled below windswept Waikapu Valley, Maui Tropical Plantation’s restaurant, The Mill House, unveils an idyllic view that isn’t only for show. The dining room opens up to a lanai from where diners can gaze past a pond where ducks waddle about and onto the sun-kissed fields where the produce on their plates might’ve been grown.
Fascinating remnants adorn the charming space and give a glimpse of Maui’s sugarcane era. Two train cars from the 1800s, one of which was King David Kalakaua’s official coach, wedged in between the bar and the dining room might seem an unlikely choice for restaurant décor for the ordinary tourist, but it makes sense upon learning about Maui’s historical railway system connected to the plantations and trans- ported goods and passengers throughout the island. While aesthetics honor the town’s agricultural past, the restaurant’s ethos shapes its future. The team, lead by executive chef Taylor Ponte is deeply committed to sustainability, taking farm-to-fork full circle down to composting the restaurant’s food waste to nourish back the soil.
Ponte serves a nuanced and thoughtful cuisine that reflects a chef who is relentlessly perfecting his technique and settling into his own. He pays homage to local farmers and ranchers and, of course, the abundant gifts from the restaurant’s surrounding 16 acres shared with Ho‘aloha and Kumu Farms.
Taro leaves from the property are braised in salted water, pureed, and stirred into risotto. Kona kampachi crudo calls for the fish trimmings left- over from the filets’ pan-seared dish; dollops of avocado are cold-smoked skin-on in kiawe wood and pureed; and slices of cherry tomato, red onion and jalapeño pepper are festively laced around the wreath; lime juice simply finishes the dish. Unctuous roasted bone marrow is polished off with togarashi-spiced wood- fired flat bread, and served with pickled shiitaki or ali’i mushroom and ginger scallion relish that nicely cut through the richness of the marrow. The croquetas is made with roasted ali’i mushrooms and leeks with a classic sauce Mornay, and enriched with aioli made with whole garlic in the shells, poached in fresh olive oil, laced with chili oil, and then pureed.
Born and raised in Makawao, Ponte’s early culinary memories were shaped by a single father, who had a penchant for Manwich sauce and fed four boys the best he could. It was spending time at his aunt’s house during family parties that sparked his passion for cooking.
“We would roll wontons and gyozas and I loved the conversation and camaraderie that would take place,” says Ponte. “We would cook, sit down, eat together and clean together. Food is life, but it’s also a great feeling to experience. I realized how much fun I have and I never missed a holiday. I learned about the time and love that went into the food—making food for someone’s birthday, a special occasion, how in depth and how many extra miles you’d go even if it’s not easy to make someone happy.”
“It took years for me to realize both people (his father and auntie) had the same intention, but one had the know-how and that really sparked my interest in learning.” Ponte began his career training on the job, and after six years in the profession, he decided to enroll in Maui’s culinary school while running a catering company as a sous chef to chef Jeff Scheer, who re-launched the The Mill House in 2016 after a major renovation. Before join- ing The Mill House team, Ponte staged at the stellar kitchens of Vintage Cave and Mavro’s, and he eventually took the lead in the The Mill House kitchen after Scheer left his post earlier this year.
While it’s still quite a ways from Octo- ber’s Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival at press time, Ponte is already planning to showcase local wild boar in a croquette. He plans to marinade the protein in Burgundy wine overnight, braise then whip with house made cheese, pickled shallots, aromatics and spices. It will be breaded and fried, served with red wine vinegar emulsion, pickled shallot mousse and a root vegetable salad.
Every Saturday, the restaurant features its often sold-out Chef’s Table, a delightful, interactive alfresco event where Ponte and team cook eight courses, with wine pairings by house sommelier Thoger Petry.
For the mains, the agnolotti, rolled fresh everyday and filled with house-cured pork, folded with chopped Kaua‘i prawns cooked in lardo, with spoonful heaps of meyer lemon emulsion to finish. The oxtail soup showcases the Texas longhorns raised 50 feet from the restaurant, its clarified broth is made from the steers’ cured bones, simmered with cilantro, star anise, and cloves into a rich stock, and layered with umami from mushrooms, salty round finish from the shoyu and fish sauce, sweetness from the bok choy, spicy notes from the mustard oil, and earthy freshness from watercress, ginger and cilantro. Shells from the agnolotti’s shrimp and fish bones from kampachi serve as the base for the prawn and fish curry; caramelized with vegetable oil, kaffir lime leaf and star anise; deglazed with dry sherry wine and coconut milk, simmered for 45 minutes and strained then seasoned with chili oil in and fish sauce. Shrimp is sautéed to order and finished with a compound Szechuan oil made in house. The roasted pork belly on toasted barley porridge is another umami delight. The porridge is thick with a nice bite, cooked in savory dashi, served with a soft-poached egg, and salt and vinegar-cured egg yolk is dehydrated and shaved on top.
The restaurant’s sustainable practices ripple through the bar program also where ingredients are sourced locally; leftover lime wheels are dehydrated for garnish- ing; and husks and seeds from juiced fruits are boiled into stocks or syrups or turned into shrubs. The drinks themselves ooze with whimsy and fun. Thirsty for tequila, I opted for the Latitude Adjustment. “We found out that Waikapu and Tequila, Mexico share the same latitude, so we wanted to capture the essence of the islands with a hint of Mexico,” explained Mari Howe, our mixologist for the evening. Dolin Blanc Vermouth adds roundness to the citrusy Fortaleza Blanco Tequila made with pure agave, green papayas are juiced for a more vegetal flavor and mixed with juiced pineapple and cilantro, and brightened even more by fresh lime juice. The Funky Farmer highlights O‘ahu’s Ko Hana Kea Hawaiian Agricole Rum made from fresh-pressed cane rather than molasses making it more herbaceous than sweet, the fuller-bodied Appleton Estate Rare Blend Rum, local jaboticaba fruit that is turned into a magenta-hued grenadine, macadamia nut oil from Pacific Biodiesel, and lime juice shaken and splashed on top with Absinthe and garnished with fennel.
For desserts, the seasonal fruits whipped into sorbets would be the easy choice, but consider the exquisite subtlety of the Sesame Chocolate Bomb. It is a dome of Valrhona sweet dark chocolate pudding, stuffed in the center with silky toasted white sesame paste that’s emulsified with white chocolate on a base of thinly sliced chocolate cake. It rests on a lavishly textured bed of green tea sabayon and toasted sesame nuts and crushed macadamia nuts from Waihee, and topped with candied ginger.
The Mill House, 1670 Honoapi‘ilani Hwy. Waikapu, (808) 270.0333, millhousemaui.com