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.