“I want to open my own place by the time I’m 30.” – Chris Kajioka
Every once in a while, something happens that takes you by surprise. If not for yourself, for someone you respect and admire for their dedication to their craft.
A few months ago, a friend received an offer to become the executive chef at a new restaurant that was going to be opening in Honolulu. Only a few details were shared with me at the time, but after he spent a few days here meeting with the restaurant’s owner, it all came together rather quickly. Within a few weeks’ time he had made the move from San Francisco back to Honolulu.
The Vintage Cave.
With an obscurely located entrance on the Coral Level of the parking lot at Ala Moana Center, and the restaurant occupying the former basement of Shirokiya department store, it is difficult to anticipate what to expect upon entering the space.
Eighteen original graphics of Les Deux Femmes Nues [Picasso]
Thousands of hand-made bricks from Pennsylvania line the walls, while Italian granite is under foot. Artwork by Picasso and Michelangelo occupy the dimly lit dining room while custom-designed Swarovski crystal chandeliers brighten the three semi-private dining alcoves. It is cavernous, enveloping and reminiscent of being inside of a castle.
An alumnus of Roy’s Restaurant in Waikiki, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, it’s successor, Parallel 37, and Aziza in San Francisco, and Per Se in New York, the Vintage Cave’s executive chef Chris Kajioka has had a wealth of experience since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY. More recently, a short stage at the Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, has further augmented an already impressive résumé.
No expense is spared in the sourcing of ingredients. Much of the fish and seafood are sourced from various locales around Japan, dry-aged beef, poularde and squab come from Sylvia Pryzant’s Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania while greens come from Hirabara Farm on the island of Hawaii. The cuisine is prepared using classic French technique, while the flavor profiles encompass a broad spectrum of influences – Asia, North and East Africa and Europe among them.
Dinner here begins with a handful of snacks. I start with the Kona-raised Kumamoto oyster. On this visit, the oyster is served with a hibiscus “mignonette”; its tart and astringent flavor assaults the palate before giving way to the lusciously, sweet and mild briny flavor of the plump oyster.
Oyster, hibiscus, shiso, ginger [11-05-2012]
The bites that follow possess more subtle flavors. A sweet smoked pain au lait scented with fresh bay; a crisp fish skin cracker topped with black bean, clam and lime; a light and airy meringue infused with tomato and garnished with micro basil; and sunchoke skin accented with scallion and harrisa. The last of the snacks, a bite-sized vanilla bean macaron dusted with caviar, offers a one-two punch of flavor. Floral with just a hint of sweetness, the pops of saltiness help to tie it in with the parade of savory bites that came before it.
Vanilla bean macaron, caviar [11-17-2012]
An assortment of sashimi arrives soon after. The selection of fish varies from one visit to the next, but it is always expertly prepared. Like glistening jewels washed ashore from the depths of the ocean, the slivers of fish are artfully arranged on the plate; each with an accompanying garnish that enhances its texture and flavor. Cold-smoked toro with smoked tuna gel, uni with ham film and black truffle, and chu toro with foie gras and matsutake mushroom showcase rich, fatty flavors punctuated with earthiness and salt. While the Hokkaido scallop with ume and fennel and hirame with burnt citrus and wasabi pair delicate, clean flavors with tart and refreshing ones adding dimension to every subsequent bite.
Next, is a pair of dishes that dazzle with their simplicity. After first being cured in dashi, Hokkaido ikura is sprinkled over a rich pommes purée and garnished with thin shavings of house-cured bonito, batons of green apple and Korean watercress leaves. The potato purée is luxuriously creamy and the smoky, salty flavors of the ikura are countered by the tartness of the apple and the bitterness of the watercress leaves.
Hokkaido ikura, potato, green apple, cress [11-05-2012]
Cooked sous vide before being lightly charred, savoy cabbage leaves are stacked in a small mound before being garnished with dill and konbu. Accenting the sweetness of the cabbage is a dollop of miso crème fraîche and a bouillon made from anchovy, ginger and konbu. The dish is familiar, warm, flavorful, comforting.
Charred cabbage leaves, miso, konbu, dill, anchovy [11-05-2012]
Jidori egg yolk, celery root, black truffle, ham, brioche, Parmesan. This collection of ingredients make up the richest, and most decadent, dish on the night’s menu. The perfectly cooked Jidori egg yolk, cubes of chewy ham, smooth celery root purée, and crunchy toasted brioche are layered in a bowl before being smothered with a light and airy Parmesan foam. Black truffles blanket the dish as they are shaved tableside. Utterly indulgent, with a heady aroma, the varying flavors and textures make this dish a memorable one.
Hirabara Farms, pineapple vinegar [11-17-2012]
When the Hirabara Farms course arrives, it is viewed as a minimalist, and stripped down, version of a salad. Over a few glistening streaks of tomato gel, individual leaves of lettuce and foraged greens are carefully placed around the plate before being finished with a light drizzle of housemade pineapple vinegar. While many of the leaves have a delicate flavor, hints of bitterness and spiciness provide interest. What I hope this will one day become is a local interpretation of Michel Bras’ gargouillou; a dish that can truly represent the islands’ terroir on a plate.
Other dishes seek to present luxurious ingredients in a thoughtful way. Osetra caviar sits atop a plank of smoked brioche dotted with maple gel and crème fraîche, for the ultimate two bite open-faced sandwich; while foie gras is shaved over dollops of banana pudding, dots of Chimay gel and bits of macadamia nuts before being garnished with a spiced parsnip meringue, making for a light and playful presentation.
Japan amadai, kabocha, pickled garlic, escabeche [12-12-2012]
Over the course of a dozen visits, I have had the opportunity to sample a wide range of “mains”. None has disappointed. Succulent, aged duck breast, its skin lacquered with berbere honey; delicate Japan amadai shrouded by its lightly puffed and extra crispy scales; fork-tender, grilled dry-aged beef from Sylvia Pryzant bathed in a rich sancho peppercorn demi-glace; bigeye tuna topped with crunchy quinoa, surrounded by a pool of port wine reduction; Kona lobster in a savory matsutake mushroom broth and topped with shavings of white truffle; poularde stuffed with truffles and garnished with ribbons of celery and pickled grapes; and more recently, a hot-smoked salmon over a velvety soubise topped with foraged herbs and rye croutons. Each dish is a case study in texture and flavor; each bite is a discovery and a delight.
Pork belly & neck, truffle, celery, grapes [12-19-2012]
Four Story Hills poularde, truffle [12-12-2012]
After the seemingly endless parade of dishes that came before it, it’s time for rice. This time, it’s an onion rice porridge mixed with king crab and topped with shaved white truffle. The plump grains of rice are creamy and are bursting with oniony flavor. Combine the earthy and woody flavors of the truffle with the sweetness of the crab and you have a perfect transition from the savory courses to the sweet ones.
Blackberry sorbet, peppered beet air, mascarpone sponge [12-12-2012]
Desserts here are varied as well, and more often than not, border on savory with a hint of sweetness. A salty shio koji ice cream is garnished with a peppery nasturtium leaf and a tart blackberry sorbet is accented with a chilled peppered beet “air” and pillows of mascarpone sponge. A favorite, though, is the smoked vanilla glacé with almond, olive oil and black truffle. Its sweet, smoky, floral, grassy and earthy flavors challenge the senses with each mouthful.
Smoked vanilla glacé, almond, olive oil, black truffle [12-19-2012]
And just as the meal began, it ends. Only a few small bites remain. A sage canelé arrives in a wooden box. The crisp, glossy and caramelized exterior hides a soft and creamy center. And when the selection of petit fours is delivered to your table, you realize you’ve gone to sugar heaven. I start with the crisp meringue in the form of a wave and work my way to the chocolate ganache with its colorfully airbrushed exterior. Next, it’s a pulled sugar pipette with a ras el hanout-flavored liquid center and finally, a black truffle macaron, a visual counterpart to the vanilla bean macaron served in the beginning of the meal.
As the menu evolves, it starts to take shape as a modern take on the traditional kaiseki. Attention to flavor, texture and appearance become apparent in each dish. Clean flavors and an unassuming presentation dominate each plate. Over the course of a dozen visits, many of the dishes have become more refined, a few have been reworked and others, replaced. Constantly working to improve, the kitchen shows its dedication to providing diners with the best possible experience.
Open officially for almost five months now, the Vintage Cave is a welcome addition to Honolulu’s dining scene, and in my opinion, it is the only restaurant in town to occupy the top tier of the dining spectrum. That said, a meal here is not for everyone. In fact, it really is not going to be the place for many. In a city where quantity signifies a better value than quality, most will view a meal here as an unnecessary extravagance. For those that have an appreciation for quality ingredients, the food here is nuanced, well-balanced and full of finesse. A meal worth saving for. A meal representative of destination dining.
Ala Moana Center
1450 Ala Moana Boulevard Space 2250
NOTE: Prior to the restaurant’s official opening on December 10, I was fortunate enough to be invited to two of the “friends and family” tasting events that were taking place in the month leading up to the opening. Since then, I have been back a number of times, dining both in the main dining room and in the bar.
I have a photo set of the various dishes that I have eaten at the Vintage Cave on my Flickr page located here. The photo set will be updated with new photos often (hopefully).
Or if you prefer, you can view them here: