Hankering for Hawaii Part IV: Dining at Three James Beard Semi-Finalists on Oahu

Wednesday, 23. April 2014 5:25 | Author:

A parade of snacks including this sweetbread chip begins the night at Vintage Cave, Honolulu's most unexpected restaurant.

A parade of snacks including this sweetbread chip begins the night at Vintage Cave, Honolulu’s most unexpected restaurant.

HONOLULU, OAHU — A culinary revolution is exploding on this island. A new generation of chefs has stepped to the forefront to shake, rattle and roll new life into Hawaii’s sometimes all too predictable cuisine.

Just consider: Among this year’s semi-finalists for James Beard Awards were five from Hawaii, including one restaurant that was a mere pop-up only months ago.

At the invitation of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, I had a chance to check out three of those up and coming chefs and restaurants recently. At two, my meal was complimentary, while at the third, I paid the tab but was treated to extra dishes on the house. In each case, I came away thoroughly excited by what I tasted and by the ambitious trajectory island cuisine is taking.

Vintage Cave

I’ve never dined in a restaurant like Vintage Cave before. Chances are you haven’t, either.

Imagine a cross between a billionaire’s medieval castle and a fine art gallery, and you get some idea of this most unusual restaurant that has no windows and is located in a most unlikely place — the bowels of Honolulu’s largest shopping mall.

In fact, my taxi driver looked at me quite puzzled when I told him where I was headed. Yes, you drive into the basement level of the parking lot of the Ala Moana Center. Among the rows of parked cars, you look for a brick doorway where a valet is stationed. You step into the doorway, where an elevator awaits to whisk you up to the next level. You arrive in a small anteroom, where you follow two women who open a double-door for you into the dimly lit restaurant. Its dramatic walls and ceiling are covered in 150,000 bricks imported from the mainland and intricately arranged in a herringbone pattern by three Romanian workers brought over for three months just to complete that task.

The cloistered dining room at Vintage Cave.

The cloistered dining room at Vintage Cave.

Hiroshima paintings that inspired the look of the restaurant.

Hiroshima paintings that inspired the look of the restaurant.

Dining amid Picassos.

Dining amid Picassos.

Immediately to your left is a series of three paintings done by Israeli artist Moredecai Ardon. Depicting Hiroshima — before, during and after the dropping of the atomic bomb — the paintings are said to have inspired the look of the restaurant. Walk a few steps to gaze upon a series of priceless Picassos that show the progression of the master’s art from realism to cubism. Off to the right are lighted display cases filled with luminous Lalique and Baccarat crystal. On the ceilings hang immense Swarovski chandeliers that glint with vivid red and blue.

All of these pieces — and much more found throughout the restaurant — came from the personal art collection of Takeshi Sekiguchi, the Japanese developer of this $20 million restaurant. It’s not by happenstance that Vintage Cave is located in the bowels of the Shirokiya store in the mall. Sekiguchi owns Shirokiya, which used to be an appliance store, with its wares stored in the 15,000-square-foot basement. When the store morphed into more of a department store, then giant Hawaiian food court, there was no more need for the basement. So, Sekiguchi, who also built the Vegas-like Grand Wailea resort on Maui, set out to build his dream restaurant.

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Hankering for Hawaii Part III: Marvelous Maui Dining at Migrant and Ka’ana Kitchen

Monday, 21. April 2014 5:26 | Author:

A visit to Chef Sheldon Simeon's new Maui restaurant, Migrant.

A visit to Chef Sheldon Simeon’s new Maui restaurant, Migrant.

MAUI, HAWAII — This island’s dining scene is heating up with the arrival of two new restaurants last year, including a fun one by “Top Chef Fan Favorite” Sheldon Simeon, late of the ever popular Star Noodle.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to check out that restaurant plus the splashy new Ka’ana Kitchen — all courtesy of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau.

As anyone who’s been to Hawaii can attest, big-name restaurants here tend to be not only pricey and touristy, but at times all too predictable. Not these two. In fact, I can’t wait to go back again to both.

Migrant

Even before he appeared on Season 10 of “Top Chef,” Sheldon Simeon’s cooking drew lines day and night at Star Noodle. After making it to the final three? The place was bombarded with even more throngs.

And now after being named “The People’s Best New Chef — Northwest & Pacific Region” for 2014 by Food & Wine magazine? Tourists and locals alike are following him over to his new restaurant, Migrant, which opened four months ago, as evidenced by the packed tables on the night I was invited in as a guest.

Dusk at Wailea Beach Marriott.

Twilight at Wailea Beach Marriott.

The entrance to Migrant.

The entrance to Migrant.

The slogan on the menu and servers’ T-shirts says it all: Come to My House. Eat.

Simeon is doing his own style of food here — comforting, Asian-inspired island flavors with little twists here and there. It’s food meant for sharing and enjoying a rollicking time over.

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Hankering for Hawaii Part II: A Taste of Rum

Friday, 18. April 2014 5:25 | Author:

The tasting bar at Koloa Rum Co. in Kauai.

The tasting bar at Koloa Rum Co. in Kauai.

 

KAUAI, HAWAII –When the future of the last of the island’s sugar plantations turned uncertain, a group of investors got together to try to figure out a way to save them.

Their idea?

Rum. Distilled from Kauai rain water and home-grown sugarcane made into raw crystal sugar.

Producing the 80 proof-and-over spirit did prolong the life of the last sugarcane plantation, but couldn’t save it from eventual closure.

Still, Koloa Rum Co. has proved a success story.

Established in 2009, it remains the first and only licensed distillery on Kauai. Its award-winning rums are now sold in nine states, as well as inf France, Australia and Canada. In San Francisco, you can pick up bottles at Cask stores.

With 22 employees, Koloa Rum now produces seven different rums.

If you fly Hawaiian Airlines to the islands, too, you can even enjoy a Koloa Breeze rum punch for free — even in coach — in a promotion by the airlines and distiller.

Moreover, when you’re on Kauai, you can visit Koloa Rum’s tasting room at the Kilohana Plantation. Free tastings are offered every half hour. You must be 21 years or older to partake, of course. And yes, IDs are checked.

That’s just what I did on a trip a few weeks ago to Kauai, courtesy of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. I’ve enjoyed many a wine tasting. But never a rum tasting, which will definitely jolt you awake at 11 in the morning, which is when I did it.

Making my Mai Tai shot.

Making my Mai Tai shot.

By Kauai law, each person is allowed tastings of only 1 ounce of rum per day. In this tasting, you’re basically making your own Mai Tai shot. Your guide first pours a little Koloa Mai Tai mix into one shot glass for you to taste. Next, a pour of the Koloa White Rum into another glass. Take a small sip to taste the crisp, clear rum that has a slight tropical pineapple finish. Then, pour it into your Mai Tai mix glass. Next, you get a pour of the Koloa Dark Rum, which tastes of molasses, coffee and toffee. The darker rum has more caramelized sugar added to it, hence its color. To create a classic Mai Tai, carefully pour your Dark Rum down the side of the shot glass with the Mai Tai mix and White Rum. You end up with a float of the Dark Rum on top. After you’re done admiring your handiwork, slam it back in one chug for a quick buzz.

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Hankering for Hawaii Part I: Taro and Sweet Potato Chips Fried to Order

Wednesday, 16. April 2014 5:25 | Author:

Taro and sweet potato chips fried to order for you.

Taro and sweet potato chips fried to order for you.

OAHU, HAWAII — If you’ve spent any time snacking in Hawaii, you’re only too familiar with those ubiquitous bags of taro and sweet potato chips by Hawaiian Chip Company.

They’re irresistible — big, crunchy slices of speckled taro, orange sweet potato and deep purple sweet potato fried up crisp with the taste of their natural root veggie sweetness shining through.

They’re everywhere on the islands — stocked in ABC Stores, Costco, Wal-Mart and Long’s Drugs.

They’re so beloved that whenever we travel to Hawaii, my husband’s sister always pleads for us to tote back a few bags to California for her, since you can’t get them outside of the islands unless you mail-order them.

What the chips are made from.

What the chips are made from.

What’s even better, though — is getting them fried fresh to order.

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Joanne Chang’s Big White Chocolate, Almond and Cherry Cookies

Monday, 14. April 2014 5:25 | Author:

Imagine these tucked into your Easter basket.

Imagine these tucked into your Easter basket.

 

Easter may be all about chocolate eggs and marshmallow Peeps. But I think it should be about cookies.

But then again, I think every day should be a cookie day.

And this cookie has it all: A twinkle of color in keeping with that festive holiday. Chocolate for tradition’s sake. And almonds for their symbolic promise of hope.

“Big White Chocolate, Almond and Cherry Cookies” is a recipe by Pastry Chef Joanne Chang that was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Food & Wine magazine. The recipe by the chef-proprietor of Flour Bakery in Boston was originally called “Big White Chocolate, Almond and Cranberry Cookies,” but I substituted dried cherries for the dried cranberries to make it more appropriate for this time of year.

The recipe uses three different flours — all-purpose, bread and almond. They give the cookie great texture. They are thin and crisp on the edges,, but stay thick, soft and chewy in the centers. The white chocolate gives the cookies a good measure of sweetness, the cherries add a subtle fruity tang and the almonds a lovely crunch. It’s a cookie that hits all the notes.

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