Hashtag ‘Ono

Migrant on Maui ushers in awaited Hawaiian and Filipino cuisine.

Chef Sheldon Simeon, one of Hawai’i’s most admired kusineros and Hilo “boys done good,” bounces between sticking to the simplicity of a dish—peeling away anything superfluous—and deconstructing classic cuisine to create something delicious and memorable.

On a buzzy evening at Simeon’s Migrant restaurant at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, I was happily acquainted with the grilled, sweet succulence of amaebi that sang with homemade preserved lemon—hands down the highlight of my first visit. Then, at a local fundraiser, Simeon made sous vide Filipino barbecue chicken skewers, with spiced vinegar and minced shallots for dipping, and a small bowl of Southern-style okra and black-eyed peas stew for soulful good measure.

Most of us have witnessed and cheered the young chef ‘s ascend to national acclaim, captivating “Top Chef: Seattle” viewers and judges with his honest approach to family-inspired cuisine. Red beanie-clad Simeon beamed with an exuberant kind nature; he strummed the ‘uke to calm his nerves, served his rendition of punchy sinigang (Filipino-style pork with tamarind broth) and showed the culinary world that Hawai’i’s cultural narrative by way of food is bold, thrilling and deserves its share of primetime spotlight.

Soon after Simeon parted from Star Noodle, his former flagship, a promising venture emerged with Chef Mark Ellman and legendary talent manager Shep Gordon. Adjacent to the restaurateurs’ Mala Wailea, Simeon launched Migrant in December 2013, where his highly anticipated cuisine found a home. His team essentially runs both restaurants’ menus—not an easy task, but one he seamlessly executes with Sous Chef Jay Kulukulualani.

Kulukulualani has been with Simeon for four years since the opening of Star Noodle in Lahaina. He was the guy who held down the fort when “Top Chef ” fans arrived en masse after the season first aired, elevating the table-wait time up to three hours at the height of the show. He soldiered on after Simeon left to enjoy a much-needed hiatus with his growing family. When Migrant was slated to open, Kulukulualani rejoined team Simeon.

“He’s such a humble person,” Kulukulualani says. “All that positive energy rubbed off. With him being in the spotlight, it’s such an interesting time. He creates the fire: I fight it. You never know what is coming.”


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Smoked Duroc pork shoulder is marinated in Sprite and dosed with mini dollops of guava jelly and pickled onions

The restaurant mantra—’Come my house. Eat.’—is an ode to the dishes Simeon grew up eating and eventually learned to recreate from his father, Reinoir. The restaurant name pays homage to his grandfather, a sakada recruited alongside thousands of Filipino laborers in the early 1900s to work in Hawai’i’s sugar and pineapple plantations. Though Simeon has yet to visit the Philippines, he cooks with the grit of one who deeply represents his ancestral land.

Filipinos are the largest growing ethnic community in Hawai’i. The cuisine has thrived in more casual joints, and its influence remains strong; but it hadn’t gotten the kind of elevated exposure that Simeon has delivered. Whether it’s the Kambing Kilawen or Goat Ceviche prepared with his father for the inaugural Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival; the crackling Lechon Kawali or Deep-fried Pork Belly with Pipinola Shoot he served at the second; or the Chicharon and Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water that greets diners at Migrant, Simeon’s keen passion for serving Filipino food “how we used to have it” has earned him a massive following and industry accolades.

Migrant is where Simeon gets to play. The space has the pleasant trappings of a tony resort—a clean, natural aesthetic; Hawaiian music wafting through the lobby where illuminated paintings depicting plantation scenes grace the walls; and an enthralling sunset that melts into a golden blue ombre.

And now that we came, we eat. Here, Pacific Northwest oysters, bathed in a symphony of calamansi (Philippine lime), shoyu and daikon oroshi are topped with micro shiso. Simeon’s personal favorite—a throwback to his Star Noodle days—Ahi Avo, pairs the creamy goodness of avocado with vibrant local ‘ahi that rests on a salty-tangy puddle of Usukuchi shoyu, sambal and lemon-infused olive oil. Corn, when in season, is charred on the grill, steamed in its husk, roasted with garlic butter, topped with queso fresco and chopped bacon, and then, dusted with kim chee powder. Blistered Shishito Peppers are sautéed with crispy quinoa; get a salty hit of confetti of nori fumi furikake and fleur de sel; and served with ranch dressing.

Stellar sous vide Hibachi Hanger Steak is dry rubbed, then charred on the flat top; draped with local watercress and pickled shallots; and perfectly drenched in Vietnamese nuoc cham. Chicken wings are battered with 808 Vodka; deep-fried and tossed in Korean dipping sauce; laid on peanut sauce; and sprinkled with rough chopped Thai basil. Sprite-marinated tocino (smoked pork shoulder), prevalent in Filipino breakfasts, is dosed with mini dollops of guava jelly and pickled Kula onions.

Simeon’s noodles are reimagined local classics. The hearty Pancit is a savory tousle of Canton noodles, vegetables, roasted pork belly, black tiger shrimp, calamansi and scallion strips strewn on top. I wolf down an umami-rich Mean Kine Ramen—shredded kalua pig, oven-crisped pork belly and choi sum nestled in chunky Iwamoto noodles; the six-minute Launiuopoko egg is perfection with a vivid, custardy yolk, and its wafu dashi broth, made aromatic with roasted garlic schmaltz. Chewy Hand Cut Fat Chow Funn is made in-house; its thick noodles entwined with chopped lechon, depth in flavors owed to brown butter achuete jus, the dish is brightened with herbaceous pipinola salad with delicate ribbons of Parmagiano Reggiano perched on top.

You won’t leave thirsty with Migrant’s respectable list of wines, sake and crafted brews. Good-looking cocktails are modern, tagged with Filipino-inspired wordplay—Lavender in Luzon combines gin and St. Germain with grapefruit juice, fresh muddled cucumber and lemon; while Pacquiao’s Punch is Old Lahaina rum mixed with ginger syrup and tropical and lemon juices.

In case there is room left for the sweet stuff, I’m partial to the purple ube (sweet potato) ice cream.

With Simeon’s remarkable career coups, great expectations naturally ensue. The young chef was already loved locally, and a two-time James Beard finalist, when Bravo network came calling. Social media fans, still in the throes of “Top Chef ” fever, recently voted him “The People’s Best New Chef ” in the Northwest and Pacific region in a Food & Wine Magazine poll.

As Simeon’s commitments take him across continents, diners can look forward to seeing and tasting how these palate-opening travels will evolve his thoughtful, culturally grounded style.

Migrant, located at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, 3700 Wailea Alanui Drive, 875-9394 migrantmaui.com

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