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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

DID I JUST HAVE MY BEST LUNCH IN HAWAII?

Fancy cuisine is largely served at dinnertime.  I don't remember any major event sponsored by Chaine des Rotisseurs (left at Four Seasons Hualalai) occurring at lunch.  However, whenever I travel, I attempt to find the best place to eat at the middle of day, for I almost fear going out at night in some cities.  This significantly limits my search for the top Michelin 3-Star and Pellegrino Best 50 restaurants.

My lunches in Hawaii are simple and feature Zippy's, Rainbow Drive Inn and similar outlets.  There are exorbitant options, such as Orchids at the Halekulani and 53 By the Sea, (the view, right), they both are outstanding, and now and then I do splurge of them.  I just might have, though, found another high end restaurant and perhaps had my best lunch in Hawaii at Vintage Cafe, located at the Ewa-Makai (east-sea) side of the Ala Moana Shopping Center.  If you want to binge on a special lunch, this is worthy of your consideration.

To appreciate Vintage Cafe, I need to tell a few things about the owner, Takeshi Sekiguchi, who also owns Vintage Cave, in the parking basement at the other end of the center.  He developed the Grand Wailea and Four Seasons Wailea on Maui, then the Japanese bubble burst.

He also was involved in the billion dollar grandiose plans of Jeff Stone regarding Ko Olina a dozen years ago.  Linda Lingle was then Governor.  Stone apparently is back with a hand in a Chinese development of an Atlantis Resort.  If you missed it, there is now also a Four Seasons at Ko Olina, with a mountain view starting at $600/night, except that Kamaaina (local resident) rates are $325/night with free breakfast and cheap parking.

At the French Vintage Cave, there is a set menu for dinner starting at $295, plus wine.  The walls of the establishment are lined with his art, said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  There is a series of 18 Picassos.  The brick walls were specially made in Yugoslavia and laid by 10 bricklayers from that country.  The wines are extraordinary, including a 2009 Grand Cru Moaopole at $16,000.  One shot of 50-year-old Macallan single malt costs $6000.

I was first there four years ago when anyone was allowed.  I didn't ask, but it is possible there is now some exclusivity, as the name was changed to Vintage Cave Club, where membership ranges from $50,000 to $500,000.  I met the then chef, Chris Kajioka (right), who just recently opened Senia in downtown Honolulu.  The current chef is Jonathan Mizukami, (above), who came over from The French Laundry.

So about my recent lunch, let me start with some background:
  • This Italian-themed restaurant became open for business in November, and has not yet had a grand opening.
  • There is no connection to the crowds at Shirokiya Japanese Village Walk (right).  Facing the outside of this food court, you need to make a right turn before entering, walk around the corner, and come upon a classy entrance:
  • About the Shirokiya walk, the whole wagyu avenue is now closed, and, probably will never open again because the cost of Japanese wagyu beef is beyond the range of most.  Tourists don't splurge in a food court. All those wagyu serving counters belong to Sekiguchi.  I can't imagine he is pleased with this disaster.
  • Vintage Cafe could well face this same problem.  It is too nice, too large and too expensive...for strolling tourists.  There are more than 50 tables with a number of side areas for private diners.  My fear is that the management will be forced to cut back quality and service to draw more people.  During my entire stay there were only two other tables with customers.
  • I understand that the roll-out has been gradual on purpose, and they are experimenting with the cuisine.  But more than three months into operation no one knows about this place.  Their marketing plan has royally screwed up.
  • True that the very best restaurants around the world (Japan, Europe, anywhere) play background sounds of the Big Band Era, American light jazz and Frank Sinatra.  Why, is a mystery to me.  But Vintage Cafe should absolutely not follow that format.  Some high class Italian music would be best.  For example, here are a few popular songs to be considered:
  • Their Cafe is also called a bistro, which has Russian origins and connotes a smallish place to eat and drink.  Maybe trattoria would make more sense.
  • Sekiguchi has visions of expanding the Vintage Cave/Cafe concept to Beverly Hills, New York, Frankfurt and Dubai, but first needs to make both French and Italian enterprises attain some success in Honolulu.  I look forward to dining at Vintage when Dubai hosts the World Expo in 2020, but I wonder what that will cost and if I will even be able to enter.
There are elements of Vintage Cafe I really like.  The partnership with the extravagant Vintage Cave Club only serving dinner is a good link.  Sort of like Robuchon in Tokyo (left), which has three levels of service.  But they all are in the same building.  

For lunch this week I had an excellent scallops and black truffles cream shell pasta.  The chef might want to consider complementing this dish with some combination of almost raw white onion, basil, broccolini and mushrooms, for after two spoonfuls, you feel the need for some complementation of  other senses (crispiness, color, taste), and it was fortunate that I had added a Caesar salad accompaniment.  I also ordered a glass of Italian champagne, Prosecco:


This was real shaved truffles, the only restaurant that has this delicacy for lunch in Hawaii.  My lunch at Quadri in Venice cannot be matched, but that was one of my three best days ever.  Finding Vintage Cafe was a revelation for me.

I had a chance to chat with Manager Gregg Hamura and Chef de Cuisine Taiki Oda, thanking them for a fine experience, and expressing sincere compliments for food quality, service and decor, plus providing some words of wisdom.  I wish them eminent success, and mostly because I want to be able to return here for regular lunches.

With tax and tip the total bill was $80, but I keep telling people that the cheapest acceptable cost of a hotel room in any major capital of the world is at least $250.  This one meal is worth much more than a night in any hotel at three times the rate.


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