Mauka's Joel Coleman is making food so original and appealing that other Santa Fe chefs are well advised to take note. In a city where most new restaurants focus either on Southwest, American comfort, classic Continental or some combination thereof, Coleman derives his pan-Asian fusion dishes from the flavors of his Hawaiian childhood.
There are Asian restaurants, to be sure, but nothing with the scope of Coleman's elegant vision. To sample his inventive dishes, I head to Mauka ("towards the mountains" in Hawaiian) with Ja Soon Kim, a local yoga teacher. Korean by birth, she lived for twenty-five years in Hawaii, and still prefers her native Asian foods. "In Hawaii there are so many ethnic groups that what you get is fusion," she explains to me. "Fusion just happens."
We order small portions of four different appetizers, ahi poke spring roll with pineapple chutney and black tobiko ("poor man's caviar"). Coleman is proud of this dish, which begins with poke, a kind of spicy sashimi very popular in Hawaii. Then he reaches to mainland Asia for the idea of rolling it in a spring roll (never done in Hawaii), combines a Hawaiian fruit with an Indian preparation to come up with his chutney, and serves it with tobiko, popular in Japanese sushi. Like the other dishes we dive into, this is marked by fresh, lively flavors that allow the individual ingredients to be savored, while the combo makes a refreshingly distinctive statement.
Ja Soon says we're eating "pupu" style, common in Hawaii, a concept somewhat along the lines of tapas, but with larger portions. The remarkably good spicy red cabbage and grapefruit salad, served with grilled shrimp, curried peanuts, and Thai vinaigrette, again pulls in influences and ingredients from several countries.
"I'm at the Farmers' Market every Saturday," Coleman says. He's a soft-spoken guy with a military haircut, armloads of tattoos, and a kind face. "Anything I can get local I do." Asparagus recently became available, so asparagus salad with blue crab, watercress kumquat and ume plum vinaigrette appears on the menu. The delicate crab gets somewhat lost in the strong flavors of the salad, but the overall effect is outstanding. Ja Soon tells me that watercress is taking such strong root in Hawaii "you can't get rid of it." We share our last wonderful appetizer, arugula salad with roasted beets, little balls of locally made Sweetwoods goat cheese fried into "croutons," pine nuts, and maple vinaigrette.
Housed in what was Kasasoba, and before that, American Bistro, Mauka carries some of the mustard roof and yellow-green walls of its former incarnations, but the effect now is more muted. Three mirrors set against one wall face four vintage botanical prints of exotic flowers on the other, all of them in simple black wood frames that echo the color of the booths under the prints. The place has a minimalist, contemporary chic. Our waiter is knowledgeable about the small but varied wine list and the unusual preparations. Although the dining room is full this evening, the kitchen readies dishes at a good pace, leisurely enough that I have time between courses for a few sips of Arneis, a light, pleasant Italian white wine with good acidity, yet the service is fast enough that we don't have the sense of tiresome waiting. The calming, spare dining room is large enough that it isn't particularly noisy even with almost every table taken, and the server's presence whenever we seem to need him, contributes to the blend of casual and fine-dining experience.
For the main, I go with duck breast. The sauce, get this, is red curry. Before it arrives I'm skeptical. To me, a die-hard fan of Louis Moskow's duck with wine reduction cherry sauce at 315, red curry sounds off base. But it isn't. It works. A little of the mildly spicy but rich sauce complements the medium rare meat in a new way.
Ja Soon's hapu'upu'u, a low oil, flaky white fish flown in fresh from Hawaii, comes with a sweet melon ginger sauce and rice vermicelli noodles tossed in citrus miso. Delicious. Side dishes, like kimchee potato salad and sweet potato-pancetta hash, again show Coleman's sure hand, imaginatively fusing ingredients and flavors. Korea's most popular kimchee is a very spicy fermented cabbage most often made with brine, scallions, red pepper, garlic, and ginger. Here it's toned down somewhat and blended, improbably but effectively, with mashed potatoes. We finish by splitting a slice of stunning cheesecake, which dresses the New York traditional dessert in Hawaiian finery: papaya, passion fruit, coconut lime sauce and then some.
Joel Coleman, 27, has been operating Mauka since October. He's glad for all the positive press he's gotten but takes it in stride. At the restaurant six days a week, he barely has time for life's other enjoyments, like snowboarding, music and travel. He'll wake up at night with recipe ideas kicking around in his brain. (The only other chef who told me he does this is Coyote Café's creative powerhouse Eric DiStefano.)
Coleman never attended culinary school, but lived in Hawaii from ages nine to twenty-three, years formative for his taste in food. He took a class in "meal management" in high school when he began making sandwiches in cafés and helping prep in bakeries. At his first real restaurant job in Ruth's Chris, a steakhouse, he learned every station. One night, with the chef off, he got the opportunity to grill the steaks and had a perfect night. Eventually taking over as chef, he learned a lot in what he describes as "one big meat class." Stints at various restaurants, including an Italian place in Vermont and an Argentinean/Pacific Northwest eatery in Oregon followed.
He continued relatively short stints at various Santa Fe restaurants, including Rociada (before the owners turned it into Nostrani) and Coyote Café under the previous ownership then, more to the Asian point, Mu Du Noodles. "It was more my style of food." As chef-Mu wanted out of the kitchen after so many years-he had no influence over the menu except for specials, which were "my chance to play around with Asian ingredients again and be in my element." Taking off to travel in Europe, without the funds to eat in high-end restaurants, he returned strongly influenced by Italian and Spanish cuisine. After a second stint at Mu Du he went to San Francisco and got a job at the Michelin-starred, Asian-fusion Amé. He left a year later with an elusive urge for something else and returned to Santa Fe and Mu Du. When he found out that Kasasoba's owner/chef was closing up to start a restaurant in Berkeley, he decided to round up investors for a new restaurant. "Everything fell into place over the next three to four months."
Coleman, who considers his food "playful and sophisticated, not to the point where it's intimidating," credits his success in part to the cohesiveness and talent of his staff, especially Robert Starr, his sous chef, and Joanna Schneider, his pastry chef. The wine list, a work in progress, could use some better selections to go with the upscale cuisine, yet it's hard to fault the new owner/chef, just coming into his own, with what he's accomplished. It's the kind of restaurant that localflavor likes to see succeed: it supports local farmers and producers while expanding the scope of Santa Fe cuisine. The dining public, other restaurateurs included, should give it a try.
Mauka is located at 544 Agua Fria in Santa Fe. Dinner is served nightly from 5:30 p.m. to closing. Shared parking is behind Cost Plus at Sanbusco Market Place at 500 Montezuma. 505.984.1969.