A couple of years ago, Honolulu heard rumors of an extravagant build starting in the underbelly of Shirokiya at Ala Moana Center. Murmurs indicated that the Japanese developer, Takeshi Sekiguchi was working on a new restaurant and concept foreign to the shores of Hawaii. 15,000 square feet of former office and storage space quickly transformed into what we now know as Vintage Cave, a new center of avant garde cooking in the Pacific.
At the helm of the Vintage Cave kitchen is Chris Kajioka. A Culinary Institute of America grad and rising name in the industry, his resume reads like some of the best in the business- Per Se, Aziza, Parallel 37. Working with the likes of Jonathan Benno, Mourad Lahlou, and Ron Siegel would no doubt prepare Kajioka for the canvas that Sekiguchi would afford him.
The end of 2012 brought the anticipated soft opening of Vintage Cave followed by glowing praise from some of Hawaii’s most notable critics and foodies. Presented as a “Private society elevating art, culture and pleasure” in Honolulu, I’ve been one of a lucky few to experience the magic. Kajioka mentioned a February collaboration dinner with Chef Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn and Pastry Chef Baruch Ellsworth of Canlis back in early January. This star studded event was sure to attract a ton of press and numerous reservations- I was sold.
I’ve read up on Wetzel previous to Chris’ announcement and was interested to see how a “locavore” would pair with the global sourcing of Kajioka. I had heard through back channels that Mark “Gooch” Noguchi would accompany the team of all star chefs around Hawaii looking for the best local ingredients for the special dinner. This was particularly exciting because I love Gooch. He’s awesome. Seriously. He was so excited to get out and showcase Hawaii’s offerings.
I am all in favor of putting our local growers and producers on center stage. Putting together a 15 course menu for a weekend collaboration dinner is tough enough, but now throw in the caveat of using locally sourced ingredients for practically every dish? Fuh-gedda-bout-it. That is dedication and love of the culinary arts.
February 12, 2013 (8:13am): I put in a reservation for a four-top for the event.
February 16, 2013 (9:58pm): Wait-listed due to an overwhelming number of members wanting to attend. Dang. I made sure to keep myself glued to the wait list in hopes of last minute drop outs.
February 20, 2013 (4:06pm): (?) Vintage Cave is calling me? “Hello? You’re confirming a party of 4 for the collaboration dinner for Saturday Feb. 23?” Pinch me. I’m in!
February 23, 2013 (5:15pm): I drove into the Ala Moana street level parking garage. Going Diamond Head, I mistakenly took a wrong turn that took me to the mall level, so I parked near Macy’s in the hopes of finding the elusive entrance below. Once you descend to the lowest level of Ala Moana, look for the moving sidewalk that takes mall-goers to Assagio’s- but continue toward the center of the basement. A seemingly out of place brick entryway and single valet marks the entrance to the Vintage Cave. Reminding me of Platform 9 3/4, this discreet entrance can easily be missed by patrons as no large signage marks the “secret entrance”. Greeted by a sharply dressed Vintage Cave host, we checked in our small party.
We were taken through a small waiting room with comfortable leather furniture, an exquisite oil painting, and a couple of small statues. Surrounded by the meticulously laid bricks brought in from Pennsylvania, we took note of the ornate iron grates that allowed for soothing classical music to be permeate the space. Relaxing.
We were brought into one of the semi-private rooms on the far side of the dining room. A vibrant, violet, Swarovski crystal chandelier hung over our table. The stage was set for the collaboration dinner. A small army of waiters would attend our table throughout the night refilling the delicious German Riesling, setting utensils for each course, serving and presenting each dish, and whisking away plates picked clean from each of the 15 courses.
The menu for the collaboration dinner written by Pastry Chef Baruch Ellsworth!
Starting with a trio of “snacks”, we were presented with the following three dishes:
Chilled Kumamoto Oysters, Elderflower, Cucumber, Sake.
Beautiful presentation. Very reminiscent of the ocean and a tidepool, gray pebbles lined the dish. Limu from He’eia Fishpond accompanied the sweet local oysters in a succulent bite.
Toasted Kale, Black Truffle, Grated Soy Salt.
Leading with this light, crispy, elegant dish would prepare our senses for dishes to come! A fantastic truffle flavor bloomed upon first bite and would mellow out with the savory grated soy salt.
Vanilla Bean Macaroon, Sturgeon Caviar.
Only measuring in at the size of a red globe grape, this bite was intensely sensual. The sweetness of the vanilla bean paired with the ocean salt from the caviar makes this such an extravagant course. Not quite a dessert, not quite an appetizer, this is a little of column A and a little of column B. The ratio is perfect, your tongue is taken on a joyous ride of salty-sweet perfection.
Smoked Brioche, Osetra Caviar, Maple Gelee, Creme Fraiche.
Oh. Em. Gee. This is pure genius. This dish spawned #ChefMayWeHaveAnother. Words cannot describe these four bites of heaven. You instantly lose control of your faculties as you bite into crispy, flaky, buttery, brioche and the caviar + maple gelee + creme fraiche melts away. My eyes rolled back as I savored each bite and the lingering satisfaction that followed. I would do unspeakable things for another one of these mind-blowing brioche courses. Definitely would be on my list of components of “My Last Meal on Earth”. Other tables must have wondered what was going on in our room with the excessive moaning and whispered expletives of pleasure.
Kona Kampachi, Charred Scallion, Hearts of Palm, Cilantro, Tapioca.
Delicately arranged, this dish beautifully balanced each component. We rolled each piece of Kampachi to encapsulate a little bit of each component and savored the firm fish with the earthly flavors of the veggies mellowed by the tapioca and the sauce.
Big Island Abalone, Organic Greens, Watercress, Sea Asparagus.
Brilliance. The perfectly cooked abalone sat in a field of green. Hearty legumes provided a nutty base, the watercress added a nice bite, and the sea asparagus (which I absolutely love) added a crunch and salt to make this a quintessential sea-to-table dish. If all greens tasted this good, I’d eat a ton more veggies.
Lightly Smoked Bigeye Tuna, He’eia Limu, Dashi.
Large chunks of tuna with a hint of smokiness with seaweed, limu, and ogo, a dollop of creme fraiche, and a crispy grain that reminded me of puffed rice made this a great tribute to Hawaii’s local ingredients. The light smoke was a nice change from the sashimi style ahi we usually eat. The seaweed, limu, and ogo were spectacular!
Lummi Island Sockeye Salmon, 8 Hours Smoked Over Alderwood, Finished w/ Butter and Brown Sugar.
Served slightly warm, the salmon melted away in your mouth. I had to pipe up and share my thoughts on this fascinating dish. Chef Wetzel said he smoked it over on Lummi Island, packed it in his bag, brought it over in his luggage and finished it here with butter and brown sugar. Perfection. He seriously needs to package some of this up weekly and send to my address. I could eat this every day. No frills, no fancy shiz, just straight smoked fish finished beautifully. Simplicity and meticulous care of ingredients on showcase here. Put this together with the brioche, make a sandwich, “Last Meal on Earth” material for sure.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Banana, Macadamia Nut, Parsnip, “Maui Belgian”.
Mmm, foie gras, probably one of my favorite splurge foods. Of all the dishes of the night, this was my least favorite. For me the macadamia nut was too overpowering, didn’t allow for the foie to balance the flavors of the other components. The table speculated a torchon of foie gras, blast chiller, and shaved to produce the texture of the dish.
Charred Escarole, Yam Shoots, Pickled Apple.
I have been hearing about Chef Chris’ charred cabbage dish for some time now. Members have been raving about the dish and this was the inspired collaboration dish! This dish was a home run. The charred escarole took center stage, delicate and flavorful. The pickled apple toned down the char just enough without making the dish too sweet and the yam shoots brightened the dish with the tender crispness of a raw green. Excellent!
Shinsato Farms Suckling Pig, Cabbage, Dill, Anchovy Broth.
An accentuation of the charred cabbage course, the suckling pig takes center stage here. The rich porky goodness of a suckling pig, a thin layer of pork fat nestled between the juicy, flavorful meat below and the crispy skin above. Yet another dish that blew my mind. Shinsato Farms has been getting a ton of great press lately and I can see why. Amazing.
Ulu and Kiawe Bean Bread, Naked Cow Dairy Three Cream Cheese Fondue.
Hawaii’s talented baker extraordinaire, Christopher Sy baked this deliciously hearty bread- paired elegantly with Waianae’s Naked Cow Dairy’s cheese fondue. We mopped up every last bit of this course! Give me a loaf and a fondue pot and I’ll be one happy camper.
Lilikoi Curd, White Chocolate, Braised Pineapple, Coconut Powder, Hibiscus.
Tangy, luscious lilikoi mixed with each sweet component gave this dish a beautiful finish. We cracked a little piece of white chocolate, portioned off some curd, added a bit of pineapple, and lastly coated with some coconut powder and magic. Beautiful presentation, balanced sweetness.
Grapefruit Sorbet, Smoked Vanilla Meringue, Yuzu, Hibiscus.
I’ve been seeing this plating arrangement more and more frequently in avant garde restaurants. A medley of components, colors, flavors, textures, playing off each other around one central flavor. Spectacular arrangement, the slight tart flavor of the grapefruit pairs well with the hint of acidity from the meringue, sweetness of the vanilla, and the tang of the yuzu. Mouthwatering.
Molokai Sweet Potato, Hibiscus Meringue, Sassafras Ice Cream, Ganache.
Last dish. We made it. Tender sweet potatoes, light ice cream, tangy hibiscus foam, sweet and sexy ganache. Perfect way to end a memorable night!
Hawaii’s best! Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, Sheldon Simeon, Chris Kajioka!
The Table with Pastry Chef Baruch Ellsworth, Chef Blaine Wetzel, and Chef Chris Kajioka.
Thank you Travis, Edwina, and Melissa for making this such a memorable experience. Great food, great wine, great chefs, great company.