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A vanilla-bean macaron with caviar and a black truffle macaron

Master Strokes

by Lesa Griffith | Photo: Linny Morris | Hawai'i magazine | May 2, 2013

Vintage Cave may be one of Honolulu’s most buzz-worthy eateries in ages, but don’t go looking for a flashy marquee. Instead, drive down into Ala Moana Center’s lowest reaches, poetically called the Coral Level. There, a private elevator beams you up to a dark, brick-lined chamber, into what was formerly the storage basement of Japanese department store Shirokiya. This is the subterranean realm of Japanese mega entrepreneur Takeshi Sekiguchi.

In a remarkable stroke of genius, the tycoon installed chef Chris Kajioka in the kitchen, luring the Hawai‘i-born talent back from San Francisco with an offer he couldn’t refuse—carte blanche in building his own lab and menu. Kajioka has since put together a tight team, including Executive Sous Chef Lee Opelinia, a former colleague from San Francisco, and Pastry Chef Rachel Murai from Nobu Waikiki.

The result is a food experience that Hawai‘i has never seen before. Not that you’d know from the operation’s website, which highlights Vintage Cave’s wine club (you can join for a cool half mil) and eclectic art (Picasso prints and Mordecai Ardon paintings). But the real luxury? The opportunity to feast on contemporary world-class food right here in Hawai‘i. Once you dine here, you’ll know why Top Chef contender Sheldon Simeon chose it as the place to stage before his final three showdown. 

As with any art form, cooking is based on lineage. Aspiring cooks work in famous kitchens to pick up trade secrets and priceless mentoring. Restaurant-hoppers will recognize the styles and flavors of Kajioka’s lineage. He brings all that he’s learned from working in New York at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and in San Francisco with Ron Siegel at the now defunct The Dining Room. (Kajioka counts Siegel, now executive chef at lauded Michael Mina, as his culinary father.) There are also his culinary stages at spots like The Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Puget Sound.

At Vintage Cave, you see and taste Keller’s influence, especially in the small-plates lineup, which combines French technique with blue-chip, in-season ingredients from near (Hawai‘i Island abalone) and far (fish shipped in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market). To that, Kajioka adds Japanese and Pacific sensibilities. His seafood plate is a jewelry box of six sashimi preparations, dotted with tiny flowers, single herb leaves and sauce dots. Each one is a stunning bijou that you first devour with your eyes, before savoring—from a smoky square of toro accented with an equally smoky tuna gel, to a melting slice of buri, a type of hamachi, brightened with charred scallion pesto and ponzu.

There are no decisions to make. You get a prix-fixe menu with up to 20 courses, including small bites that the chef calls snacks, two desserts and petits fours. Dinner swells and recedes with each course, vaguely following a kaiseki format. Kajioka is a cerebral, visual chef, telling a culinary story with a beginning and an ending. The light bites that start the tale include one dainty white macaron scented with vanilla bean and filled with black American caviar. At the end, you get the same thing in negative—a black truffle macaron filled with white truffle butter cream. Visual cues such as these make dinner mentally stimulating, as well as a flavor riot. Moreover, each creation is framed by the perfect vessel—Kajioka has assembled a gorgeous collection of ceramic wares, from French Guy DeGrenne plates to little pedestals by local star artist Daven Hee.

It’s mind-boggling how much work goes into even the smallest dish. The clam dip amuse bouche is a crisp rice cracker topped with light brown mounds. Those mounds are a complex mix of smoked Manila clams, bacon, onion puree, shallots, garlic, parsley, chives and chervil, and garnished with lemon gel and herbs. And, yet, it does taste like clam dip—a super sophisticated one that you wish you could take home and hoard.

And that’s the running theme in Kajioka’s compositions—the menu might be filled with words like soubise and emulsion, but the flavors aren’t esoteric. They are plain delicious, times infinity. He turns lowly cabbage into a dish that local chefs rave about—charring the leaves and assembling them into a little rectangle, then pouring around it a comforting, intense broth of miso, kombu and anchovy.

Kajioka’s treatment of amadai (tilefish) makes it a contender for best fish dish on the island. Cured in sake, the meat is melting beneath a layer of fish scales standing at attention. The wizardry goes on, right through dessert. To finish, Murai makes sculptural bowlscapes of sweetness. One of her closing delights includes Fuji apple sorbet, frozen chocolate powder that melts in your mouth like the finest shaved ice and a tiny water balloon of yuzu and orange.

In contrast to these culinary tableaux that Kajioka and his team paint nightly, the dark setting and medieval decor don’t necessarily make the best backdrop for his ethereal food. But after a few bites, any decor would fade away. As for the service, though, the well-trained servers are attentive, yet unobtrusive, allowing you to revel in Kajioka’s feast.

Understandably, Vintage Cave’s prix fixe means it may not be a frequent dining spot for some. But it’s not just the elite who jockey for one of this resto’s 20 nightly spots. There are also dedicated diners who simply appreciate amazing food. For these happy few, dining at a restaurant like Vintage Cave is worth it. People who know and love art—whatever the medium—already know this. After all, isn’t a taste of the sublime worth the price?

Vintage Cave
Ala Moana Center
1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
Entrance on Coral Level
441.1744
vintagecave.com

Hours
Mon.-Sat., 11am-2pm and 5:30-11pm

Who’s There
Owner Takeshi Sekiguchi, Japanese pop stars and video-game moguls, hard-core culinary connoisseurs

Cost
Prix fixe only, $295

Must-Try
Egg yolk with celery root truffle, foie gras, charred cabbage leaves with a miso-kombu-anchovy broth—if on the menu

Where to Sit
Since it’s one big dark dining room, take any table you can get.

Reservations
A must. The restaurant serves 20 diners a night. Let the reservationist know about any dietary restrictions—the kitchen is accommodating.