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Experience culinary artistry at David Paul’s Island Grill

By Staff | Dec 24, 2009

Chef David Paul Johnson presents the Brussels Sprouts Caesar Salad. Photo by Rob Reed.

LAHAINA — We have just returned from David Paul Johnson’s new Island Grill restaurant, where the artistry and creativity of each dish we sampled was on par with the fine cuisine one would expect at any Chaine des Rotisseurs dining events around the world.

Chaine originated in France in 1498. As members of the organization for almost 20 years, we can attest to it’s reputation of being the epitome of both food quality and presentation. 

The new David Paul’s Island Grill is beautifully decorated with distinct dining areas — the Sunset Terrace offering ocean and sunset views, the attractive Main Dining Room, a private room for 50 diners, a sophisticated Indoor Lounge and an inviting Lanai Lounge to enjoy after-dinner drinks, coffee and desserts with a fire pit for cool evenings (a haven for those who enjoy an after-dinner cigar).

The theme of the evening was to “Dine in the Kitchen with David,” the owner and chef, and observe the staff at work. Our small table was graced with crystal, silver and fine china. Preparing our taste buds for the culinary offerings to follow, we enjoyed a glass of Kenwood Sparkling Champagne.

As a prelude to enjoying our fine banquet, a Amuse Bouche was served. The delicate-but-flavorful Chicken, Shrimp Wonton with Black Bean Sauce was followed by a cool, refreshing, lightly spiced Watermelon Gazpacho with jalapeno, diced peppers, onions, tomato and extra virgin olive oil, setting a mood of expectation for the culinary artistry soon to follow.

How many epicureans have tasted a Black Bean and Truffle Soup? Well, now is the time to try David’s rich Southwestern earthy flavors in this dish that blends chili, garlic, chicken stock and Creme Fraiche garnished with crisp tortilla chips. It was served with the perfect accompaniment: a glass of Willakenzie crisp, dry Pinot Gris.

An unforgettable chilled Brussels Sprouts Caesar Salad with David’s unique caesar dressing was a stellar choice for the salad course. The dressing alone is unforgettable, but the innovation of using loose sprout leaves added to the crisp croutons, anchovy filet and shaved parmesan cheese make this a memorable caesar salad.

The Butternut Squash Ravioli and Butter Poached Lobster entree is a magnificent dish to behold and to savor — delicate Roasted Squash Ravioli Puree and mascarpone cheese-filled pasta is topped with roasted cherry tomatoes, sage butter and toasted pecans. This splendid selection was served with a glass of chilled Marc Bredis Vouvray Chenin Blanc.

Oh, there are so many eye-catching dishes — for instance, the artistry of the delicate Pea Cake in the Princess and the Pea Scallops entree. Succulent skillet-seared “Day Boat” diver scallops are served on the silkened pea cake with pickled ginger butter, sweet Kabayaki Sauce and fresh asparagus tips.

And to finish this elaborate feast, we enjoyed the delectable, fork-tender Braised Boneless Short Ribs. Slow-braised Prime Angus Beef short ribs in a rich Italian Red Wine Sauce with herbs and garlic are served with mushroom risotto, ratatouille of vegetables and Reduced Barolo Wine Essence… just perfect with the most sensuous red wine, Domaine Valmoisslne Pinot Noir.

From the “Sweet Afterthoughts” Dessert Menu, we relished Creme Brulee prepared with English tea and Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake on a graham cracker and pecan crust, served with Maple Creme Fraiche, caramel sauce and candied pecans. It was the flawless finish to a memorable feast.

There are about 60 wines offered at $40 or less per bottle that can be purchased by the glass as well, or for more expensive offerings, enter David’s personally built walk-in wine storage closet and choose your own bottle.

From humble beginnings and a seriously troubled adolescence, Johnson has elevated himself to one of Hawaii’s brightest culinary stars.

He was 14 when he got a job washing dishes at a pizza parlor in his hometown of Salt Lake City. Stints at places like the Roadway Inn and IHOP followed.

Two years later, in 1974, he met his mentor.

“Max Mercier took me in as an apprentice, taught me the basics of French cooking and encouraged me to learn more on my own. Eventually I spent time in Paris, Mexico and Japan. Without his help, I hate to think of where I might have ended up,” said Johnson, who spent time in a juvenile detention center.

With a few dollars in his pocket, Johnson landed in Honolulu in 1978.

“The only job I could get was as an assistant cook, one step up from dishwasher. But in three years, I worked my way up to the chef tourneau position after having worked in every outlet at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki,” he explained.

In 1982, he started his own eponymous gourmet catering company. Then he met Hawaii entrepreneur Rick Ralston — best known as the founder of Crazy Shirts — who was in the midst of restoring the historic Lahaina Inn in 1988 and looking for someone to open a restaurant in the boutique hotel.

“I co-designed the Maui restaurant and even had the joy of pouring the cement. It was a huge thrill to open David Paul’s on Feb. 14, 1990,” Johnson recalled.

During his tenure at the restaurant, Johnson skyrocketed to culinary fame. He collected more than a dozen consecutive Hale ‘Aina awards from Honolulu magazine for Best Maui Restaurant.

His restaurant was included in Gourmet magazine’s “America’s Top Tables” issue in 1997 and ’98 and was Bon Appétit magazine’s “Restaurant of the Month” in February 1997.

He’s appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and the “Great Chefs” series on the Discovery Channel, and cooked at the James Beard House in New York City and in some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Aujourd ‘Hui in Boston, Oceana in New York and Bistro de l’ Etoille in Paris.

Two of the most important honors bestowed on him were being named in 1995 Johnson & Wales (Providence, Rhode Island) Culinary College’s 98th Distinguished Visiting Chef, joining the ranks of such esteemed names as Roger Verge, Jacques Pepin, Madeleine Kamman, Paul Bocuse, Martin Yan and Andre Soltner. In March 1999, Johnson was inducted into the Circle of the Friends of the Widow in Reims, France by a descendant of Madame Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot Champagne). An exclusive group of food and wine enthusiasts, there are less than 500 invited members worldwide.

In 2000, with the original Lahaina restaurant sold and a Honolulu restaurant experiment ended, Johnson was able to do the two things he loves — spend time with his wife and children, and hone his considerable skills at an exclusive community on the Big Island.

In spring 2009, the culinary circle completed itself once again.

He’s back in Lahaina, this time looking out to sea at David Paul’s Island Grill.

Watching five chefs dressed in crisp white uniforms expertly preparing exquisite dishes for the handsome, black-clad servers to transfer to the dining room was an exhilarating experience. An array of splendid creations continually passed by our table, making us appreciate the culinary preparation rarely experienced in a fine restaurant.

As server Robert Livermore stated, “This level of dining is more of an experience than just satisfying one’s hunger.” We couldn’t agree more. Bon appétit!

Dinner is served Tuesday through Sunday at 6 p.m. David Paul’s Island Grill is located in Lahaina Center at 900 Front St. For reservations, call 662-3000.

Pau for now…