Mauka chef Joel Coleman's culinary comfort zone appears to reside in the creative sweet spot between a work in progress and a finished dish. To his likeability but perhaps also to his detriment, he quietly resists self-promotion and references to his many accolades, choosing instead to let his food do the talking. If you've ever had his food, then you've probably heard its siren call many times since.
SFR: Mauka is still open for business, right?
JC: Yes, absolutely. It's amazing how quickly the rumor tree sprouts new roots and branches. We were closed for one week in October to let everyone take vacations and regroup, and we had a sign on the door that said 'Mauka will be closed from October 16 to the 23 and will be reopening on the 24.' My guess is that someone misread it and started talking. All it takes is one person in a town this size.
Any plans to bring back lunch service, which has been an on-off thing at Mauka?
We're going to start serving lunch at the end of March—and this time we're sticking to it. We're keeping it pretty minimal price-wise, trying to target people who might be apprehensive of our dinner prices, or who just want to spend $10 to $15 and be gone. I'm planning a small menu with four or five really great noodle dishes and a couple of salads.
How have creative and economic factors affected your regular menu changes?
We made an attempt a few months back to lower all the prices on the menu, and subbing duck leg for breast was one change I haven't liked, so we're bringing back the breast. We're also doing an amazing lamb udon, which is hearty like a winter pasta dish, with a sauce made from the braising liquid from the lamb shanks. We do a wonderful pork and foie gras sausage and have gone back to making our own bread, so every single thing is being made in house now. Only the poke spring rolls haven't changed and never will.
Who are you supporting with your chef's schedule and income during these troubled times?
Local farms and producers, always. I like Pyramid Café because they use local lamb, beef and chicken. I like El Mesón a lot. I love the cassoulet at ¡A La Mesa! and the beef jantaboon at Mu Du Noodles—I still crave it even after working there, which says a lot. Also, Los Potrillos and El Parasol.
You have an aversion toward the word 'fusion,' which you likened to a scapegoat for chefs who don't wish to commit or be pigeonholed stylistically. Will you please explain that to readers?
[laughs] I don't hate the word fusion as much as I once did and am somewhat resigned to the fact that Euro-Asian fusion is what I do. I do think the word gets used too much. What I value most is respect; not so much for the identity of the cuisine but for the identity of the ingredients, which I try to keep from losing.
Any self-imposed restrictions when it comes to your own creativity and improvisation or is it all fair game?
You don't mess with really good pho or cassoulet! It's like movie remakes or song covers. Sometimes they work, but even when they do, the reasons why can be chalked up to an individual's tastes. Of course, if nobody liked change that would be a major problem for Mauka.
You do a lot of special tasting menus on demand. Are you open to discussing special menus with people who have varying budgetary and dietary restrictions?
Yes. I can make it happen.
Do you ever regret getting into the restaurant business?
Not for a second. I still can't imagine doing anything else.
544-B Agua Fria St.
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday at 5:30 pm.