COURTESY GUY SIBILLA
Chef Jon Matsubara prepares Keahole lobster with Hawaiian vanilla oil and baby beet vinegar. CLICK FOR LARGE
Stage set for promising future
IT TAKES a visionary to imagine a space as grand as the Honolulu Design Center, a revolution in Honolulu architectural history with its sweeping metallic and glass curves in a can't-miss orange orange. It's as much a sculptural form on the landscape as it is a functioning retail, special event and culinary space. I'm guessing it's an eyesore to those who never tire of looking at C.W. Dickey and Hart Wood architecture, but I admire its audacity and spirit of optimism. Hawaii must have a brighter future if a building like this can exist here. Inside the center's walls, one gets the feeling that anything is possible -- and such positive energy can be contagious.
The space sets the stage for the restaurant Stage, another novelty for Honolulu, certainly the first to boast of "couture cuisine."
The word "couture" is generally associated with fine, one-of-a-kind fashion and comes loaded with connotations of elitism and exclusivity, but that's not the vibe here at all. Amiable general manager Charly Yoshida, who opened Wong's King Street restaurant, is always present to put people at ease, and the overall mood is playful, like stepping onto a stark black-and-white stage filled with larger-than-life lamps, frames and other obstacles that give the room its Alice in Wonderland effect. What I love the most are the vast spaces between tables that leave you privy to all the sights and sounds of a restaurant experience, with an equal measure of privacy. Large windows overlooking Piikoi are great for the claustrophobic, if not for the acrophobic.
To designers, the room will simply reek of design. Magazines are placed ever so carefully, upside down on a bookshelf. The food is the same way. Chef Jon Matsubara pulls out every trick in the book -- foams, fizzes, air and jellied essences -- to amuse and delight a crowd. The restaurant seems to want to tap into the Zeitgeist of a new and jaded generation, one whose formative rallying cry once was, "Here we are now, entertain us."
Least likely to be entertained are the culinary aesthetes who will view the food as being somewhat cumbersome and see the menu as trying too hard. The former executive chef of the Canoe House at Mauna Lani can be subtle. An amuse bouche of green apple ravioli was simple and wonderful, crisp and refreshing. But even his experience at New York's Bouley and Jean-Georges sometimes takes a back seat to resort kitschiness. Going back to the fashion analogy, I'd describe this restaurant as being more Thierry Mugler than Yves Saint Laurent. It's possible to love both with a little attitude adjustment. With the former, you'd prepare to be shocked and amused, and the latter, to be gently wooed.
COURTESY GUY SIBILLA
The chef's Dynamic Duo of Beef, a pairing of braised short ribs and petite strip loin. CLICK FOR LARGE
WHILE EVERY element on Stage's plates tend to be a joy in itself, pairings can be incongruous in flavor and texture and, at times, garish to behold. White fillets of grilled Hawaiian escolar ($29) are served in high contrast to a vivid purple puddle of Molokai sweet potato butter. Tiny cubes of Meyer lemon gelee sit atop the fish, taking the place of the usual sliced lemon. The drama is in the visual, not the fish itself.
The cuisine might be aptly called couture in its handmade, labor-intensive creation. Many people are experiencing sticker shock at evening prix fixe menus of $65 and $75 without wine (to order all the items a la carte would be $66 and $98, respectively), and a top price of $42 for a duet of lamb. For this price you might not need to order anything else. The dish comes with two black cardamom-spiced lamb chops and rustic Tuscan-style braised lamb with an herb salad and parmesan polenta. I would have preferred a double helping of the braised lamb over the chop with its dry cardamom coating.
Beef lovers will enjoy the Dynamic Duo of Beef ($39), tender braised short ribs paired with a petite strip loin of Snake River Valley Wagyu. It's accompanied by a salad of crab and melted leeks. At lunchtime a Wagyu burger is $18.
Hopefully, you'll have enough money to sample a few appetizers, such as caramelized diver scallops ($14) topped with a tart yuzu beurre noisette, or crowd-pleasing grilled scallion prawns ($12) doused with coriander pistou and served with thick, nutty red pepper Catalan Romescu sauce.
The only thing I've been hearing back about this restaurant is that it's expensive, which demonstrates a disconnect between "normal" folk and what restaurateurs perceive as value. Relatively, Stage's prices are fair. The $75 prix fixe price is what I might have paid in Las Vegas or San Francisco ... 10 years ago. The going rate these days tends to be in the $125-to-$175 range, without wine.
I noticed that people are willing to make sacrifices to eat here. On one night only one table was indulging in wine; the others chose water or ice tea. Those with a preference for wine were no doubt at the center's wine bar A*muse, where a Cruvinet and smart card system allow you to select wines from around the globe at 95 cents to about $15 per ounce.
Just don't miss dessert, another main attraction due to the presence of Honolulu's dessert king, Mark Okumura. In the spirit of Stage, he also gives in to play in coming up with some of his creations, like a Hawaiian vanilla-poached Fuji apple and almond "pop tart" ($12) shaped like the all-American boxed breakfast tart. On the side is a wafer bowl filled with apple oat crunch topped with balsamic-cinnamon black currant ice cream.
I imagine some will even come in just for Okumura's Fantasy of Chocolate ($22) sampler with nine bite-size gems ranging from a Valrhona chocolate shot to chocolate azuki kanten. Pure heaven.
Stage will surely test boundaries about what a dining experience should be, and I hope that it will goad other restaurateurs to up their game.