Ben & Maila

Digest Dining with the Stars

September 22, 2013

Story By: Alana Folen | Photos by: Lawrence Tabudlo

When I’m able to share an out-of-this-world dining experience with people who are just as passionate about food as I am, it’s as if my heart is about to burst with joy. So, this week, I welcomed the opportunity to reunite with my dear friends musician-songwriters Ben Vegas and Maila Gibson for a full-fledged Dining with the Stars feast at Cafe Julia in the historic YWCA Laniakea building.

It’s late morning, the quiet calm before the lunchtime rush is upon us, and we’re transported to a quaint and charming atmosphere that has an uncanny resemblance to the European-style cafes halfway across the world.

Vegas and Gibson have been singing as the duo Ben & Maila since 2001, and on this day, they took some time before a gig to indulge in some of the restaurant’s signature dishes that specialize in Mediterranean fare with Pacific Rim and Eurasian influences. Luckily, Vegas and Gibson arrived hungry and with refined palates, ready to savor it all.

“I have a deep appreciation for food,” says Vegas with a smile. “Food is a big part of what we do musically — it runs hand in hand. Since we perform at a lot of weddings, we’re always around food.

“Of all the people whom I’ve worked with musically, there’s no one who appreciates food as much as Maila. She loves all types of food and desserts.”

And Gibson couldn’t agree more. She’s been a self-proclaimed foodie for years, and has her uncle to thank for that.

“My uncle used to be one of the main people for the Original Pancake House, so he would travel all over the country teaching the cooks how to make everything. My mom and I lived with him for about a year in Portland, Ore., and I think for that entire year we never ate at home, we would just go to restaurant after restaurant,” she recalls. “So, it was then that I learned the nuances of food and how to appreciate different tastes. I was was only 13 at the time. Now, I’m a little more refined with the way that I eat. I try to eat very clean, but boy, because I do eat so clean, I cheat really good as well. It’s go big or don’t go!”

With that, Cafe Julia owner and president Emerson Ribao made it his mission to make sure the table before us was dressed to the nines with a vast array of gorgeous creations. For starters there was Ahi Poke Tacos, which were devoured in the snap of a finger.

Nestled within each taco shell is a bed of homemade cole slaw topped with morsels of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth ahi bathed in a yuzu and wasabi dressing. A drizzle of aioli with hints of zesty Sriracha sauce dress up the fish and kaiware sprouts add a finishing touch. “I love the flavors, and you can tell that the fish is very fresh,” Vegas says.

Next came, Gibson’s favorite, Caprese with vine-ripened tomato and fresh mozzarella served with pesto and homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

“You would think Caprese is prepared the same no matter where you go, but it’s not. It’s all about the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the tomatoes! These tomatoes are perfect, very firm,” Gibson explains.

Between sips of non-alcoholic Mango Mint Mojitos and Lilikoi Coolers, these talented wedding singers and best friends were in awe of the new and captivating dishes presented before them. Crab Cake and Lobster Roll were big hits, as well as Oyster Rockefeller, Shrimp Scampi Linguine, Rack of Lamb, and Filet Mignon and Foie Gras.

“The filet is so tender, it’s really cooked to perfection,” Vegas states, surveying the growing food frenzy. “What do I want to try next?” Gibson makes the tough decision simple by handing him the Lobster Roll.

“I keep thinking each dish is my favorite, but then I try something else and think that’s my favorite. My taste buds are truly dancing right now,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve never had a lobster roll, so I’m really excited. It’s so good!”

On the verge of a legit kanak attack, the duo make sure to keep their energy up because later that evening Vegas and Gibson performed in a wedding workshop for Wedding Cafe. Strange how everything comes full circle, as it was years ago that these two actually entered the wedding business after Bryson and Tanna Dang, owners of Wedding Cafe/Eden in Love, hired them to sing at their wedding.

“We’ve been keeping busy. The wedding season is really booming right now and we’re pretty much booked through the rest of the year,” Vegas confirms.

Vegas and Gibson say it’s such an honor to be a part of one of the most important days in a couple’s life, creating lasting memories through song.

“We love performing at weddings and we’re always changing up our repertoire,” Gibson explains. “The best compliment we’ve ever received is ‘You guys were meant to sing together.'”

When they’re not creating notes of love, Vegas and Gibson are sharing their talent in other regular performances throughout the island. They serenade audiences every Thursday from 6:30 to 10 p.m. at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, once a month at HASR Bistro and a couple times a month at Gordon Biersch.

“Currently, we’re working on our own YouTube channel. It’ll feature us performing songs that our friends, family and fans love! This channel will help us gain more exposure,” Vegas states.

“We want to appeal to as many senses as possible,” Gibson adds. “Not everyone is audible, some people are more visual, so with videos they can not only hear us, but see us, and we are able to share a bit of our personalities.”

Separately, Vegas teaches guitar lessons at Na Maka O Puuwai Aloha in Waipio, and Gibson teaches voice lessons at Pas De Deux in Waipahu, and also collaborates from time to time with award-winning musical group Hookena.

For more information on Ben & Maila, search for their fan page on Facebook.

Cafe Julia

1040 Richards St.
Breakfast: Sundays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Wednesday-Sunday, 4-9 p.m

Honolulu, HI 96813

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