David Paul Johnson: Re-invented

The Legendary Restaurateur Takes Back Lahaina

David Paul Johnson: Re-invented

He's Baaaaaaaack! In truth, David Paul Johnson never left. Having spent the better part of a decade cooking for the upper-crust in Big Island's paniolo country, Johnson has merely "returned". Maui foodies who grew to love David Paul's Lahaina Grill, then learned to adapt to the popular Lahaina eatery without Johnson at the helm, are in for a treat. Whether you want to call it "unfinished business", a "homecoming, of sorts" or "a new phase"—David Paul Johnson has returned to Lahaina—with a new eatery in tow, set to open in a matter of weeks.

David Paul's Island Grill will be located on Front Street, directly opposite the sea wall that attracts dozens of sunset gazers nightly. Appropriately, his reastaurant's al fresco "Sunset Terrace" will boast  50 prime view seats, while a second "Lanai Lounge" in the rear of the eatery boasts fire pits and chic, modular furniture. In between, a dining room, a private room and bar will act as ground zero for this 175-seat operation. In short, Johnson is casting the proverbial net far and wide, hoping to attract both the clientele who shed a tear at his departure 10 years ago—as well as their children, now 25 to 35 years old.

We spoke at length with this energetic, confident chef on the heels of his grand opening in Lahaina, and covered everything from his restaurant concept to cooking techniques.

B on Hawaii: There's a buzz out there that the location of David Paul's Island Grill, while seemingly idyllic, is one that has had a history of failed businesses. What's your take?

David Paul Johnson:  Some people out there have nicknamed  me "The restaurant resurrectionist". I'd like to think that if anyone stands a chance to making this location work, it's me.
We created a number of lanai's, one with which has fire pits, and the other the best sunset views in all of Lahaina. It will have a glass partition around it, so guests can enjoy oceanfront dining, in town, yet have some privacy. It's elegant.

B on Hawaii:
  It seems that the eateries in Lahaina haven't changed much in the 10 years since you left for the Big Island. Why is that?

DPJ:  They haven't, which is one reason I was inspired to come back and do something different. Times have certainly changed. One thing I noticed is that a lot of restaurants in Lahaina have gotten so expensive, they've almost become exclusive. And then they offer kama'aina nights with discounts. In my opinion, if you have to offer locals meals at 50% off the menu price, then you're charging 50% too much for food in the first place.

B on Hawaii:   So how will you remedy the situation? Rent couldn't be cheap in Lahaina...

DPJ:  I'm going to price things to value. I'm sourcing as much as I can locally, and charging what local people can afford to pay. For example, I'm going to offer a 9-item tasting menu that will give people a luxurious dining experience starting at $45 (pricing depending on your choice of protein). You can do all meat, all seafood, all veggies, or a combo of the three. I'll serve 50 wines by the glass, every bottle of which will be priced under $40. I built a killer walk-in wine cellar, which will be open to the public. You have to realize that most people buy wines by the label, or the varietal which they know and like. So I'll allow patrons to walk in and peruse the selections, pick it right off the rack.

B on Hawaii:  So a lot of effort is going in to the wine selections. Will there be liquor?

DPJ:  I'm going to do my best to revive the tropical drink here. I think the "island chic" decor I have purchased really sets the stage for the island grill experience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to re-invent the mai tai, it's already a great drink. But I've got a few ideas...

B on Hawaii:  Like?

DPJ:  I haven't told anyone this yet! But years ago I created a "Lava Flow", and it's since morphed in to something that doesn't even resemble lava. Or a flow of any sort. So I'm going to put chocolate liquor on the bottom of a champagne glass, and then pour strawberry cognac with a rum puree over it—now that will look like lava flowing. I'm also going to reach out to the community and start a mixed-drink recipe contest. Any way I can include the locals... the better.

B on Hawaii:  Now you've got us salivating. Let's talk food. Where is David Paul Johnson going to shine in this regard?

DPJ:  First let me tell you about some of the fun things we're going to do. I took a dim sum cart, and retrofitted it into an ice cart that will feature chilled lobster, oysters, shrimp cocktails and so on. The whole vibe, especially on the lanai's, will be family style dining. Just about everything on the menu you can order in appetizer, entree or family style portion. It really opens up the menu. The lunching ladies who want to sit outside and share a bowl of salad and oysters while they sip champagne; to the groups who want a hearty dinner yet share dishes. We want to give people the option of the fine dining experience that doesn't cost much. We want people coming back more than once on their visit, and locals, well, all the time.

B on Hawaii:  Gotcha. More on food...

DPJ: One dish I'm really proud of is my "Almost raw and Naked Salad". It will feature purple, orange and white cauliflower, green beans, green and white asparagus, broccoli, baby carrots, beets, English peas, peppers and a simple olive oil-salt-pepper-miso vinaigrette. It's the most colorful dish, it just pops off the table when you see it. Also, I'll have a Brussel sprout Caesar salad with polenta croutons, shaved Reggiano cheese and fresh anchovies.
    On the heavier side, I'll be doing a lot of slow roasting at the restaurant. I'll roast Kurabota pork loin, Chinese Five-Spiced osso bucco from locally raised sheep, and I'm making great use of the locally harvested grass-fed beef.

B on Hawaii:  Time out, technical question; A lot of chefs have begun turning away from the grass-fed meats, as they are having both a hard time working with the product, or turning steak and potato purists over to the gamier texture to the beef. What's your stance?

DPJ:  My stance is that any chef worth his salt should be able to dress a side a beef, and know how to prepare it so that it is delicious. Sure, the grass-fed cattle isn't as consistent as it should be. But keep in mind—when you get the same exact thing from the same providers over and over again, then the rancher is doing something unnatural. It just takes a great chef who can approach it correctly. But I'm going to try and get all local, and use the entire animal. It's the most sustainable way.

B on Hawaii:  So does this apply to all sorts of local purveyors?

DPJ:  It sure does. I'm talking to the local fishing charter guys, who are coming back daily with more fish than they know what to do with. Instead of letting it go to waste, I'm encouraging these guys to show up at my back door. I'm looking for regular people who grow everything from herbs to a single fruit tree in their yard—I'll use it all. I'm putting ads on Craigslist for farmers, this sort of thing. This will not only boost the community, but keep my menu varied and tied in with the locals. It's very exciting.

B on Hawaii:  I know you're not a fan of the high-temp, fast-fire cooking. What's your angle?

DPJ:  I've been utilizing very low temperature cooking as of late. I take my time seasoning really well-blended oils, and I heat them to 105 degrees or so. I'll then cook thin sliced of fish in them, which really allows the meat to absorb the flavors of the oil. It comes out just slightly cooked, and bursting with the flavors of the oil and whatever spices I've added. It's like a light poach.

B on Hawaii:  What have you noticed most since your return to Lahaina?

DPJ:  Almost nothing has changed. It's ridiculous. There's a whole new generation looking for a new dining experience, and it's just not here. I'm pretty confident that once we get the buzz going and start sharing this place with the community, people will say "There's only one David Paul's."

David Paul's Island Grill will open at the end of April 2009, and is located at 900 Front Street in the Lahaina Center.

"We want to give people the option of a fine dining experience that doesn't cost much." —Johnson