July 7, 2013
1450 Ala Moana Blvd Honolulu, HI | www.vintagecave.com
A trip that I look forward to each year – one that I will always try to make while I live here in Minnesota – is a visit back home to Hawaii. Local food, white sand beaches, warm weather, and family are all highlights of these journeys. But as much as I enjoy eating all of the familiar local cuisine that is hard to come by in Minneapolis, on this most recent visit one meal in particular would serve as the height of my gastronomic experiences: Dinner at Vintage Cave.
Main Dining Area – A spacious, luxuriously adorned dining room featuring unique art and crystal
Hiding beneath the bustling walkways of Ala Moana Center in the former basement storage area of Shirokiya exists a restaurant unlike any other in the islands. Stepping out of the elevator and walking into the main dining area transports you to another world, a separate existence. Thousands of masterfully laid bricks create the framework for the space. Marble floors, subtle lighting, Swarovski crystal, and priceless art ranging from Michelangelo to Picasso all come together for a visually stunning impact.
On a post-dinner tour of the entire restaurant the General Manager indicated to us that the owner of Vintage Cave wanted to create a spectacular restaurant on the scale of some of the most unique dining rooms you’d find in the food capitals of the world. From first look to a tour of the details this goal is executed in grand fashion. Mission accomplished.
After taking in the main dining room we are led to one of the side semi-private alcoves for dinner. Each of the three side rooms is colored by a custom Swarovski chandelier. Our room was the smallest of the three, featuring a stunning amethyst chandelier.
I had experienced Chef Kajioka’s food once before during a special tasting dinner when he was at Roy’s in Waikiki. Chef Kajioka had since moved on to work in various kitchens in the San Francisco area, further advancing his skills and gaining an incredible depth of experience. This would not only be an interesting meal in its own right, but additionally so as I would have the opportunity to see the growth in Chef Kajioka’s food in the years since my meal at Roy’s.
The first course is an assortment of small “snacks” that come to the table in rapid succession. These bites contain varied flavors that stimulate different senses on the palate, awakening them for the courses to follow: The salinity and mild sweetness of fresh oyster is balanced with the acidic bite of takuan; a small square of sweet and delicate milk bread (pain au lait); concentrated savoriness from bone marrow meets the crunch of a clam chip; subtle smokiness cuts through a slightly tart meringue and the bite of onion.
The final snack in the first course is a uniquely prepared vanilla bean macaron. The combination of sweet, vanilla scented macaron and the salt pop of caviar create a delightful balance on the palate.
Served on an astonishingly heavy plate, our next course takes us on an exploration of sashimi. Beautifully presented, quality cuts of various fish are presented in combination with accouterments that work to accentuate the natural qualities of each fish. Kampachi with yuzu and shiso, shima aji with citrus wasabi, kinmedai with ume and fennel, and ika with a yuzu kanzuri – These sweeter, milder fish are expertly paired with a variety of bright citrus flavors.
Balancing the lighter bites on the plate are presentations of heavier, fattier cuts of fish. Toro with a smoked tuna gel, bigeye tuna with foie gras and pepper, and buri with a charred scallion pesto – Rich and fatty oceanic flavors are given depth and an intensity of flavor by their accompanying ingredients.
In the next course a generous helping of Osetra caviar sits atop brioche bread. The crispy, buttery brioche bread is elevated by the saltiness of the caviar in each bite. A tart flavor creeps in from dots of creme fraiche, helping to alleviate the palate of the luxurious combination of caviar and brioche.
For the next two courses the meal takes a simpler, focused turn toward vegetables. In this course the flavor of asparagus is presented in multiple fashions. A piece of white asparagus sits beneath konbu, while an intense and concentrated juice of grilled asparagus dots the plate. The prominence of the asparagus permeates the dish, complimented by Osetra caviar and a refreshingly tart tofu cream.
Cooked and charred savoy cabbage leaves are garnished with dill and konbu in this next plate. The sweet, slightly smoky flavor of the cabbage is simple yet profound. The accompanying dashi and miso creme fraiche compliment the cabbage with bite and umami. This dish is a study in simple ingredients, presented in an interesting way.
A plain appearance belies the decedent and rich nature of this course. Beneath the seemingly dull white surface of the dish lies a rich, perfectly cooked Jidori egg yolk. Layered beneath the egg are cuts of salty ham and a smooth puree of celery root. Surrounding the egg, ham, and puree is a ring of crispy brioche bread. These ingredients are then covered with an airy, strongly scented foam of parmesan cheese. Each bite brings with it the savoriness of cheese and ham, along with the creaminess of the celery root puree and crunch of brioche.
Slow roasted abalone serves as a meaty focal point of this next course. The abalone is mildly sweet, with a hint of smokiness from the roasting process. Fermented mustard and roe add pops of intense flavor. Atop the abalone nori brings another element of the sea to each bite.
The next course of foie gras is presented in a way that looks reminiscent of dessert. White chocolate, mandarin oranges, and fennel introduce elements of bitter and sweet that would make the flavor of this dish as dessert-like as its appearance. However, the rich and concentrated savoriness of the foie gras (sandwiched between layers of white chocolate) is prominent and forward, reigning in the plate as a savory course.
This next course has the visual appeal of a home cooked meal, but with greatly elevated flavors. A delicate piece of tile fish is prepared with the earthiness of truffle and a mildly sweet umami undertone. Tender leaves of bok choy add a hint of bitter. The rice, seemingly simple, shows its precise preparation with its fluffy texture.
Aged and roasted squab is the centerpiece of this beautiful plate that echoes the visual tones of the forest. The intensified quality of squab is controlled by the other elements of the dish – the sweetness of corn, the tart punch of cherry, and the slightly bitter and earthy flavor of watercress. This is a plate who’s flavor changes slightly with each bite as the balance of its ingredients varies on the fork.
For the last savory course of the evening we had the option of a Wagyu short rib or, for an additional supplement, upgrading the course to a cut of a true A5 grade Miyazaki Wagyu beef. Pictured above is the course prepared with the A5 Miyazaki Wagyu. The star of the plate is most certainly the beef with its intense meaty flavor and unbelievably fatty quality.
For dessert the menu opts for a light and refreshing offering, a welcomed respite from the rich savory courses before it. A light, sweet, and bright coconut water sorbet is paired with strawberry, corn, and pistachio in this beautifully plated dessert. The tartness of strawberry helps to cleanse the palate. Corn and pistachio add elements of flavor that help to keep the plate from becoming singularly sweet.
The final course to arrive at the table is a box of sage canele. The exterior of the canele are very crisp, likely surprisingly so for those eating these pastries for the first time. Within the wonderfully caramelized exterior lies a soft, creamy center. Elements of sweetness and the woodsy tones of sage become the final tastes of the night.
My experience with Chef Kajioka’s food years ago showcased many of the same themes as this meal at Vintage Cave. Most importantly, despite the stunning architecture and grandeur of the restaurant space itself, the real beauty of Vintage Cave exists on the plate. There is a clear focus to highlight ingredients, flavors, textures, and visual impact throughout the menu. The quality of ingredients and application of modernistic technique and interpretation creates a meal full of flavor of excitement.
Vintage Cave and its chef represent, in my opinion, the only dining establishment in Hawaii that showcases the upper echelon of cuisine.
A meal here is not for everyone; in fact it is probably not for most. In a land of plate lunch sized portions, where the same restaurants have occupied the “best” category among local publications for years on end, the style and price point of Vintage Cave will likely seem frivolous. However, for those with an appreciation for quality over quantity, the food here is modern, intriguing, and delicious. For those who aspire to experience a higher level of cuisine, this is a meal worth saving for.
1450 Ala Moana Blvd. #2250
Honolulu HI 96814