Maui Onion Festival Crowns Three Culinary Winners

May 6, 2013, 1:23 PM HST · Updated May 6, 3:05 PM
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Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef who will be taking it easy on the onions for a few days.

Vanessa Wolf judges the Maui Onion Festival Recipe Contest on behalf of Maui Now.

Vanessa Wolf represents Maui Now at the judges’ table for the Maui Onion Festival Recipe Contest.

By Vanessa Wolf

Saturday’s 24th annual Maui Onion Festival brought a host of onion-based sights, most notably the recipe drink contest.

Three mixologists were given were given 10 minutes to make four margaritas utilizing Sauza Blue tequila and… Maui sweet onions.

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Ummmm. Say what?

Before you can fully process the horror of it all, you notice Ross Steidel from Hula Grill chopping jalapenos, Dennis Day from Leilani’s thinly slicing onions, and Skye Dante of Maui Fish and Pasta inexplicably chipping away at a kiawe log.

Before long, Dante had a small fire going and Day was muddling his heart out.

Mixology madness ensues, resulting in onion margaritas.

Yep.

Onion margaritas.

***gulp***

Day's wining cocktail, The Rufus. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Day’s winning cocktail, The Rufus. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Day was first to present with ‘The Rufus,’ a mango margarita muddled with jalapenos, lilikoi, and Maui onions. The heat of the jalapeno drowned out the onion flavor, rendering it the most traditional and – arguably – palatable.

Steidel arrived soon after with his ‘Ecuadorian Bus Ride,’ a drink featuring pickled onions, mangos, cilantro, and lime. Having been on bus rides in Guatemala and Belize, it’s not hard to imagine what the Ecuadorian version is like: think possible near-death experience and you’re in the ballpark. Thankfully, the cocktail itself wasn’t nearly so traumatic.

Last up was Dante’s ‘Smokin’ Maui Onion,’ a mad scientist concoction if ever there were. A traditional margarita was topped with a ball made from a pureed sautéed onions, thyme, rosemary, and lemongrass that was then emulsified with sodium alginate and placed in a lactate bath. Say that fast three times.

You know you were dying to see it: Dante's "Smokin' Onion" cocktail. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

You know you were dying to see it: Dante’s “Smokin’ Onion” cocktail. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The resulting effect was a margarita with a gelatinous Thanksgiving gravy ice cube on top: totally and completely bonkers, but admirable in a WTF kind of way. The flavor? Odd and very oniony, but it’s an onion margarita contest for crying out loud! What do you expect?

In the end, the most traditional and onion-obscured cocktail, The Rufus, won the $100 prize. The Rufus was tart yet spicy – the kind of thing you might actually order at a bar – but Dante’s daring, completely loco molecular gastronomy concoction took first place in our hearts.

Earlier in the day, the Ka’anapali Restaurant Recipe Contest saw four dishes go head-to-head to determine a single Westside winner.

The four dishes had been selected from eight previous entries.

Urquidi's winning dish featured lamb and foie gras...and onions. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Urquidi’s winning dish featured lamb and foie gras… and onions. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Greg Grohowski of Hyatt Regency Maui Resort made his “Maui Onion Menage a Trois” featuring lavender-seasoned tenderloin. Wesley Holder of Pulehu, an Italian Grill once again presented his Maui onion tart with foie gras mousse and port wine gelee, and Jennifer Evetushick of Tropica repeated her Maui Onion Gnocchi.

Marc Urquidi of Roy’s Kaanapali changed it up and presented sous vide lamb loin on gruyere scalloped potatoes and Maui onion chimichurri alongside foie gras with caramelized and pickled onions.

Proving that change is good, Urquidi won again with his new dish.

Lastly, the Maui Onion Recipe Contest pitted Chris Kulis of Capische?, James McDonald of I’o, 2012 winner Jojo Vasquez from Plantation House, Kevin Hanney of SALT and 12th Avenue Grill, Nick Mastrascusa of Ulu Ocean Grill at the Four Seasons Hualalai, and Maui’s own “Hawaiian Care Bear” Sheldon Simeon of Star Noodle against each other to prove mastery of the pungent bulbs.

Mastrascusa’s sublime Maui Onion and Uni Flan. Wow. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Mastrascusa’s sublime Maui Onion and Uni Flan took top honors. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The offerings varied from Kulis’ Kona Maine Lobster Salad with smoked Kula onion emulsion and grilled Kula onion vinaigrette to Maui lamb crepinettes stuffed with house lemon ricotta and Maui onions. Vasquez’s crispy Maui onion and kampachi tartare was given some stuff competition by Simeon’s chicken liver mousse, Maui onion jam, and Funyuns plate and the Maui onion stuffed with a fried hibiscus blossom filled with black lentils.

Judging was no easy task considering the six extraordinary offerings. You know what they say: it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

However, in the end, Mastrascusa’s sublime Maui Onion and Uni Flan with Maui onion hearts of palm soup, black river caviar, and roasted Maui onions took top prize for both impeccable onion flavor and plain old incredibleness.

One can only hope some of these creations make it on the chef’s respective menus.

We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line – Vanessa(@mauinow.com)

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