Hankering for Hawaii Part IV: Dining at Three James Beard Semi-Finalists on Oahu
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.
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.
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.
The evening I was there, much Japanese could be heard spoken in the dining room. Not surprising since 80 percent of the clientele is Japanese nationals.
Vintage Cave is open to the public, but it also boasts 400 private memberships. Those are folks who have ponied up $5,000 each to be members of the restaurant, a distinction that allows them discounts on food and beverage, a private wine locker on the premises that can hold 12 bottles each, and use of the restaurant for private functions.
Sekiguchi tapped Chris Kajioka to be the chef, telling him to create the kitchen he coveted, regardless of expense. Kajioka comes with serious chops, having cooked at Aziza in San Francisco, Per Se in New York and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. The beautiful, precise dishes he’s crafting at Vintage Cave would be right at home in New York, San Francisco or the Napa Valley. The fact that they’re being done in Honolulu is a marvel.
In fact, to me, the food is a little reminiscent of that at Benu in San Francisco, but with more Japanese influences. Kajioka, who’s eaten at Benu many times and counts its Chef Corey Lee as a friend, considered that a high compliment.
There is only one menu at Vintage Cave — a $295 tasting menu that runs 15 courses or so. Dining here is a languid experience at heavy wood tables set with weighty leather chairs. The dining room has three alcoves set with tables for a more intimate experience. There’s also a lounge area with tables and a bar that serves rare cognac for $2,000 a shot. The black-suited waitstaff is plentiful and attentive, as they walk purposely from table to table, delivering dishes and inquiring whether the pacing is to your liking.
A hot towel for your hands starts things off before a parade of tony two-bite “snacks” are set before you, including caramelized popcorn with Caspian Sea caviar, a sweetbread puff, a Gruyere cheese cracker dusted with lime zest, a black dashi tuille crowned with salmon eggs, and the most fanciful kale chip ever.
Next, a brick of buttery, smoked brioche laden with Golden Osetra caviar, maple gel and Marcona almonds.
That’s followed by a spectacular plate of sushi that includes tuna tatake with coffee-onion marmalade, smoked salmon with yuzu gel, miso-mustard octopus, and toro with bone marrow and shiso.
English pea soup is poured at the table. You take a spoonful and your eyes roll back in your head at the intense, sweet, pure pea flavor so concentrated in this vivid green broth.
And on it goes to a crisp cabbage leaf in anchovy bouillon with miso cream fraiche, followed by a quivering Jidori egg yolk hidden underneath a shower of black truffles and Parmesan foam that tastes as extravagant as it sounds.
Fisherman prize the collar of the fish in much the same way as they adore the cheeks. That’s because the flesh in both those areas is among the most succulent. Wild hamachi collar, lacquered with a sweet, smoky glaze, was full of meat that you carefully pick off with chopsticks. Snake River Farms beef cap got a swoosh of bright green nettle puree and slivers of pickled bird’s nest.
Desserts roll out with strawberry soup with pickled green strawberry and creme fraiche ice cream, then white chocolate cremeux complimented by the flavors of basil oil, coconut powder, kalamansi puree and a translucent shiso tuille.
Just as dinner began, so it ends: With an array of sweet snacks to nibble, including yuzu puff pastry filled with citrus curd, pear-lavender pate de fruit, and a single marshmallow dusted in Japanese roasted soybean powder that tastes of chestnuts crossed with peanut butter.
Afterward, as you take the elevator back down to the parking lot, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve just stepped out of a dream.
Before that night’s dinner at Vintage Cave, I had lunch at MW Restaurant, thinking I’d eat light, knowing I’d have to gird myself for a huge tasting menu to come only hours later.
That plan went out the window when Chef-Owner Wade Ueoka and his wife Pastry Chef-Owner Michelle Karr-Ueoka sat my husband at the chef’s counter right in front of the open kitchen, and started plying us with dish after dish. Thankfully, they made smaller versions of the dishes for us to try. They couldn’t help themselves. And truth be told, it was all so good, it was worth breaking the rules for.
Coincidentally enough, both the expediter and a server at MW also work at Vintage Cave. That server was one of my servers later that night at Vintage Cave. And the expediter was spot-on when she described the flavors at MW as being on par with Vintage Cave, but on a more accessible level with a more modest price point and a more laid-back atmosphere.
Ueoka met his wife when both were working at Alan Wong’s Honolulu for more than 17 years. His wife, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, also staged at Daniel in New York, Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Yountville. They opened MW (named for their first initials) six months ago.
The result is high-level cooking with dishes that playfully harken to old-school favorites that span the globe.
Squares of airy focaccia are brought out to be enjoyed with an onion aioli dip.
There’s Italian arancini ($12) given the Japanese touch with the fried rice balls hiding bits of unagi and butterfish to make things a whole lot more interesting.
Greek Salad with An Asian Twist ($10) is exactly that — a lovely bowl of Kula baby romaine arranged just so with tomatoes, olives, feta and a drizzle of shiso vinaigrette.
“Fried Chicken” ($12) brought back visions of my favorite childhood Chinese pressed duck. It’s actually done similarly here with Jidori chicken that’s first poached, pressed into small squares, then fried to a perfect crunch. It’s glazed with a sweet, spicy, garlicky sauce and kimchee cucumbers.
The signature dish that almost everyone orders — and rightly so — is the $22 Mochi Crusted Monchong (Opakapaka at dinner). Mochi is grated on a Microplane before being used to coat the fillet that’s pan fried. It creates an incredibly crisp exterior that’s practically weightless over the moist, delicate fish.
Desserts, of course, are not to be missed. Lemon meringue brulee is capped with a tuille that’s heated to form an edible cover for the glass that holds layer after delightful layer of lemon sorbet, custard, tapioca and shortbread.
Haupia sorbet is served in a still life of aerated coconut, kaffir lime pudding and pineapple. It’s as refreshing as it gets.
Ueoka lights up as he talks about how he and his wife are always coming up with new ideas for the restaurant — from tasting menus to Sunday supper options.
That’s exactly what you taste in the food, here, too — a feeling of genuine care.
The Pig and the Lady
Up until last last year, The Pig and the Lady was a pop-up restaurant — a very popular one at that.
It was only in November 2013 that Chef Andrew Le opened a brick-and-mortar place. In sleepy Chinatown — the last place he thought he’d ever open a restaurant.
The unconventional location for this funky establishment is actually rather fitting for the rather idiosyncratic and wildly creative fare he serves.
The pig in question refers to the Year of the Pig that Le was born in. The “lady” in question is Loan Le or “Mama Le,” his Vietnamese mother who is the inspiration for many of the dishes.
Le is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He also staged for eight months at San Francisco’s Rich Table right when it opened. Years ago, he attended art school, hoping to be a ceramicist. Maybe that’s one reason he has such a knack for molding disparate flavors into formidable cohesion.
Take the house-made papparadelle ($18) topped with a rich pork bolognese. Familiar enough. But Le adds seaweed, pickled jicama and shiso to it, which lift the dish to new heights of savory wonder. Enjoy it with thick, toasted slabs of garlic bread ($2) slathered with a little chicken fat for even more indulgence.
Salad of Sprouting Seeds ($9.50) is a favorite among the locals and Aussie tourists who flock here. It’s lightly dressed with a date vinaigrette, allowing the freshness of the slivers of Asian pear, lettuce and chrysanthemum leaves to shine through and the flurry of puffed rice to remain super crunchy.
Laotian fried chicken ($11) is not battered so its crisp exterior doesn’t overwhelm the succulent flesh underneath imbued with bold spicy, sweet and salty goodness. Peanuts are sprinkled over the top for added crunch.
Coffee can bread is a clever brioche-like bread with a touch of actual coffee baked in a can. It’s sliced in rounds, then its center filled with a runny pate made from Jidori chicken livers that have been soaked in milk to tame some of its natural minerality. The combination of the earthy, bitter hint of coffee with the gamey liver is genius. Grapes, pink peppercorns and roasted almonds finish the dish. Like many of Le’s dishes, there’s a lot going on — but somehow it all works.
Pho Tsukemen ($13) brings out two separate dishes: a plate of springy noodles with a big chunk of brisket cooked slowly for 12 hours, and a bowl of pho broth that’s been cooked down to such concentration that one spoonful tastes like it contains the entire pig. Although I’ve seen people drink the bowl of dipping broth when ordering this Japanese-style noodle dish, I can’t imagine doing it with this one because it is just that rich.
Dessert is a wedge of cake made moist and buttery by avocado, and even more intriguing by a pea shoot white chocolate foam and corn gelato with actual kernels hidden within its creamy base. It’s reminiscent of griddled pound cake, but leans a little toward the savory side. A touch of sea salt makes it all just right.
Besides 10 distinctive cocktails, The Pig and the Lady also makes its own non-alcoholic shrubs and coconut horchata. The winner for me was the house-made ginger beer, which was pleasantly light on sweetness and abundant in the prickly burn from a copious amount of real ginger.
No question, the Pig and the Lady is fun and trendy. But it’s the flavors that are big, bold and utterly cravable that will lure you back again and again.
Hankering for Hawaii Part I: Taro and Sweet Potato Chips Fried to Order
Hankering for Hawaii Part II: A Taste of Rum
Hankering for Hawaii Part III: Marvelous Maui Dining at Migrant and Ka’ana Kitchen
Hankering for Hawaii Part V: The Posh and the Pig