Pho is one of those food words where proper pronunciation keeps eluding me. My English trained brain wants to say “foe” but the Vietnamese say it as “fuh.” At Tropica, located at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa, it doesn’t matter if you can say it–just order it. The pho comes from Chef de cuisine Jennifer Evetushick, who joined the team less than a year ago and has added a few other new signature items to the menu.
“As soon as I accepted the position of chef de cuisine, I observed the how, what and why that made Tropica,” says Evetushick. ”I wanted to adapt my own interpretation of how I perceived the experience, and improve it further. I met with resort executive chef Garret Fujieda and resort executive sous chef Ikaika Manaku each week, and we had tastings to transform my ideas into reality. We drew from local ingredients and all of our customer feedback (we ran each potential dish as a special first). I also encouraged feedback from my cooks, asking each day what they were passionate about and how we could integrate that into the menu. Out of that, our baby was born.”
Evetushick speaks with a gleam in her eye when you ask about her dishes. Part of her contribution is the enhanced infusion of Euro Pacific and Hawaiian-themed techniques. You will find that passion for technique and presentation in starters like the ahi and crisp pork belly, chile grilled tako and Tropica ceviche. The ceviche features her own housemade tapioca fried cracker. The tako is boiled in beer before its tenderized and grilled. The ahi and pork belly also has frisée and Maui onion jam.
“Working with Bev Gannon for four years before coming here has framed my culinary viewpoint to focus on the South Pacific,” says Evetushick. ”The ingredients you get from these areas are diverse and exciting. I also enjoy the clean lines and simplicity of the Asian influence; it helps you to focus on the pureness of an ingredient without masking with too much of this or that.”
Evetushick’s favorite dish by far is the pho, and her enthusiasm for the work that goes into the preparation is evident in the broth. Pho enthusiasts know that the dish requires a really rich broth. The traditional way calls for meat, but Evetushick has changed it up with a rich shellfish and seafood stock base. She also adds flavors with kaffir lime, lemongrass, miso butter and shallots. The beautiful bowl is further studded with plenty of cracked crab claws, mussels, scallops and fish.
“The pho is started with roasted lobster and shrimp shells,” says Evetushick. ”We add tomato paste, sake, aromatic herbs and cover with lobster stock to create a rich broth. Since it’s traditionally done with veal broth, we wanted to be innovative and change the average diners interpretation of pho. And so we came up with this, a bounty of local seafood packed into an mouthwatering broth with my favorite noodles. And we’re glad we did–we sell about 18-20 per evening!”
The Hamakua mushroom flatbread has morphed into a tapas dish, perfect for sharing as a starter or nibbling with cocktails. The dough is both crisp and chewy and the toppings of goat cheese, truffle arugula salad and roasted garlic béchamel make it complete.
“Since I drew from my cooks for inspiration, it was easy to get them excited every day about new dishes,” says Evetushick. “They are so supportive and such a strong team. Developing the mis-en-plus for each dish and developing techniques allowed them to connect with a sense of ownership on this new menu. It resonates with them daily, and I’m lucky to work with such a talented, inspired group of people. Overall, the menu has begun to settle in and is getting great reviews. New menus always have a period of time where customers miss the old dishes and flavors, but once they give a new dish a chance, there’s no looking back.”
For dessert, Evetuschick introduced the “Study in Chocolate” a salted caramel dream with German chocolate cake and ganach. The pineapple polenta upside down cake incorporates corn, a delectable technique borrowed from Italian dessert cakes. Both more than satiate the need for sweet. Evetushick says they’re “certainly not an everyday type of dessert.”
What’s more, bartender Fred (Freddie) Sconfienza has a wondrous way with the beverage menu at Tropica. He recommends the new seared ahi and buckwheat soba with pickled slaw as a cool dinner dish that can be paired perfectly with his selections.
The award winning Dragonberry Bomb is a superb way to start the cocktail hour, as is the Okole Wow, which features a ti-root liqueur made on the slopes of Haleakala. Maui Pineapple Rum also made at the Haleakala distillery is only going to be found here at the Westin. For a creamy martini treat, there’s the Nutty Hawaiian, rimmed in chocolate and mac nuts with Godiva dark, coconut cream, macadamia liqueur and Stoli Vanilla. “It’s a liquid dessert that appeals to those with sweet cravings,” he said.
A perfect introduction to Tropica lies in the tasting menu, which runs 5-6pm and 8:30-9:30pm. First course is lobster chowder, haiku baby greens with Kula strawberry or the new roasted beet salad with Surfing Goat Dairy cheese and mac nuts. Second course choices are Yuzu chicken with green papaya and asparagus confit, Oriental linguini with tiger shrimp and sake broth or mahi mahi with Lap Cheong sausage and fried rice. The dessert menu features white chocolate banana bread pudding, Kaffir lime and lemongrass brûlée and the polenta cake. It’s all just $33, or you can have it triple paired for $43.
You have to try dining on the grass beachside of the walkway at Tropica, for a divine al fresco experience–the sunset view is beyond compare. Of course the ambiance inside or at the bar is all first class, with fire pits, koi ponds, plantation-style teak tables and thatched room umbrellas add to the truly unique experience.
“It’s only been about two months, and the menu is developing constantly,” says Evetushick. “It’s what keeps us on our toes as culinary experts. Look for some new introductions in 2013 as we plan to keep Tropica Restaurant and Bar a step above the rest!”