Vintage Cave shook Oahu’s dining scene in 2012 with its lavish tasting menus. Priced then at $295 per person, the cost broke the barrier as to how much Hawaii diners had been willing to pay for a single dinner.
Many accolades have been heaped on those tasting menus, but less known is the fact that two years later owner Takeshi Sekiguchi added a sushi bar concept that also focused on bringing the best seafood to the table at a similar price point.
The sushi bar was in the same unlikely site, the basement of what was then Shirokiya, the only entrance being in the dingy lower-level parking lot of Ala Moana Center. To this day, I have to drive in a square-wave pattern up and down the parking aisles to find the telltale brick entry.
When the Sekiguchi-owned Shirokiya moved to the center’s Ewa Wing and became Japan Village Walk in 2015, it was easy to forget Vintage Cave still stood in the old space. It wasn’t like it could be moved. Its 15,000- square-foot interior had been painstakingly constructed one brick at a time, and it had become home to Sekiguchi’s collection of Neolithic-to-fine
THE SUSHI bar received less fanfare because — while there was only one place to get a meal at the level presented by the likes of Chris Kajioka, Jonathan Mizukami and the Vintage Cave chefs who followed — for most people, raw fish is raw fish. There was little reason to pay more than the going omakase rate around town.
Since then we’ve welcomed other high-end omakase experiences and Vintage Cave Club has grown to offer two sushi bars. One is in the Emerald Room, helmed by Hirofumi Beniya, formerly from Beniya in Waikiki Yokocho. The arrival of new sushi chef Kunihiro Yamamoto occasioned a look at what he’s bringing to the other, the Kazuma Room.
Sekiguchi has a reputation for seeking out talent around the globe. Yamamoto had a decade of experience working in Yao, in southern Osaka, before moving to the United States, settling in at the luxurious Bellagio Las Vegas. But just like Hawaii, Las Vegas suffered a blow to tourism after 9/11, and with so much uncertainty and fear in the air, Yamamoto returned to Japan to raise his young family.
For those who believe sushi is little more than slapping a piece of fish onto vinegared rice, there’s plenty of value in the variety of techniques and elegance Yamamoto brings to the table, which he demonstrated through an unforgettable 25-item kaiseki dinner. He started with black clam soup, followed by a plate of sashimi that wasn’t simply a matter of sliced raw fish. The snapper, horse mackerel and sea bass had been wrapped and cured in konbu to dry over time, a process called kobujime that leaches excess moisture while imparting umami to the fish. The process, developed before refrigeration, was used to preserve fish.
Many of Yamamoto’s processes take more than four hours, the prep done before diners ever settle in at the five-seat counter, where the chef holds court along with his wife, Atsuko Yamamoto.
Next came a dish of soy-and-dashi-marinated Okinawan spinach, flavored with bonito. Even with the soaking, the crunch of the leaves reflected the fresh, crisp nature of the greens.
A dish of shredded Hokkaido hairy crab came next, followed by a series of nigiri: baby snapper, flounder, tai and Shimane prefecture squid topped with red uni available only a few months in summer. Yamamoto uses soft, fluffy Hokkaido koshihikari rice that doesn’t distract from the fish.
EACH SEAFOOD received its own special treatment. For another helping of squid, Yamamoto scored the meat several times to soften and release the flavors before he cut it into thin strips that were balled up and served, sweet and tender, atop nigiri. It was the best experience I’ve had with ika to date.
Next up came nigiri of nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), increasingly popular for its fatty, oily quality, which the chef warmed with charcoal to release its oils, adding to its prized fatty character. The fish was then topped topped with kawahagi (filefish) liver. I was a little concerned when the chef said the fish came from the same family as the lethal fugu. I was assured that the tingling on my palate after eating the liver was purely psychosomatic.
Any fears were set aside when Yamamoto showed the steamed octopus section that was to be the next course. The tako was a deep brown, having been boiled in tea to help soften and remove impurities, before being steamed. This was sliced and served two ways, salted and topped with a sweet sauce. I wanted more of the salt version.
But then, I pretty much wanted more of everything, especially the otoro nigiri, part of a trio of ahi belly cuts, from the most basic maguro to medium-fatty chutoro up to the desired extra fatty part closest to the gills. The maguro was marinated zuke-style to maximize flavor, but there was no doubt the otoro was a little bit of heaven on the palate.
Yamamoto changed the pace with a hamo (conger eel) chawanmushi with sweet onion ankake (soy-sake) sauce, before returning to a series of sashimi and nigiri items such as Chiba abalone, Molokai amaebi, silvery kohada served braided, Hokkaido sweet bafun uni, Kumamoto tiger shrimp and broiled anago. When I had questions about the pen shell he had grilled and wrapped in nori, he brought out the huge shell of the creature, which has an abductor muscle with scallop-like sweetness, though tougher in texture.
The heads of the Molokai amaebi had gone into the miso soup brought out next. This was followed by an unusual offering of smoked takuan wrapped around cream cheese. Yamamoto made the takuan with white daikon from Akita prefecture.
I got my wish for more otoro, which Yamamoto made into rolled sushi, before the final presentation of dessert that came from Vintage Cave Club’s main dining room.
The dessert changes daily and on this day it was a blancmange surrounded by Champagne gelee, dotted with cubes of muskmelon, a rare treat in Japan, where people generally don’t buy it for themselves. It must be gifted, and a single melon can command a price of $100.
VINTAGE CAVE CLUB KAZUMA ROOM
Ala Moana Center lower level (beneath Macy’s)
>> Call: 441-1744
>> Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
>> Cost: $300 per person
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.