For nearly a decade, through now-closed outlets like Bread + Butter and Kapispa, chef Masa Arnaldo Gushiken has teased us with glimmers of his Argentine heritage, study in Spain and love of tapas. But alas, his main mandate was to create Japanese cuisine.
In one of the most exciting openings I’ve seen in a while, Gushiken is now ensconced in a space of his own, free to create the menu of his dreams at El Cielo in Waikiki, the only authentic tapas restaurant we’ve ever seen here.
I’m elated for the chef and fellow foodies hungry for something so different from the usual spate of Asian restaurants and burger joints.
Save for the lack of complimentary olives, so ubiquitous and abundant in Madrid that when I expressed my love for one restaurant’s olives they sent me back to my hotel room with a cupful, I loved the experience from beginning to end.
The spare dining room is very small, with the kitchen commanding most of the space, so it gets noticeably louder and louder as the night progresses, with diners getting drunk on Spanish wines and the pure giddiness of enjoying such a fine menu.
Of course, a tapas menu involves ordering many small plates and the first order of business was to sink my teeth into buñuelos ($7), delicate golden orbs of mashed potatoes and black cod. These collapsed on the tongue in silky perfection. Tasting these first, I knew we were in good hands.
And it doesn’t get much simpler or delicious than a bacon-wrapped dried date stuffed with blue cheese (two for $6).
I couldn’t get enough of the light chicken liver pâté ($12) served with a mini housemade baguette and, to be honest, would have been quite content to eat pâté and buñuelos all night.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a tapas restaurant without the requisite jamon Serrano and Iberico, respectively carved from lighter white Duroc, Pietrain or Landrace varieties, or black Iberico pork. A charcuterie platter with the ham, olives and dried fruit is $28. Add on manchego, brie, blue or goat cheese for $10 each.
Or order Serrano ($6) or Iberico ($10) to accompany pan con tomate ($10), the housemade baguette combined with fresh tomato purée.
If you’re in need of greens, there is an arugula and beet salad ($18) of gold and red beets with blue cheese, candied walnuts and sherry wine vinaigrette, or ahi nicoise ($20) with romaine, radicchio, soft-boiled egg, cherry tomatoes, green beans and fried onions.
Then, enter heavier territory with grilled Spanish octopus ($20), something I enjoyed just about every day while traveling through Portugal. Here, the tender octopus is served over a small helping of potatoes, with olive oil, paprika and Gushiken’s mother’s chimichurri, made more sour than typically presented locally, with Spanish sherry vinegar.
It’s funny that my experience of more savory chimichurri was shaped a couple of decades ago by the churrasco restaurant Tudo Bom. The sour tinge was unexpected but makes sense, considering the condiment would have been intended to cut the fattiness of the meat being consumed.
It wouldn’t be a Spanish restaurant without paella that comes in a vegan version ($30) with mushrooms, seasonal veggies and saffron aioli; a loco pollo version ($28) with chicken, chorizo, Spam, garbanzo beans and saffron aioli; or a more-expected seafood iteration ($33) with Kauai garlic shrimp, clams, squid, green beans, red bell peppers, garlic sauce and saffron aioli.
Heavier main dishes include lamb chops ($52) with roasted potatoes and red wine sauce, or Australian wagyu ($58) accompanied by beets, green beans, onions and chimichurri sauce.
Save room for desserts of a frozen turron ($8) of soft almond nougat with honey meringue, or ube Basque cheesecake ($12) with whipped mascarpone.
It was a wonderful, unique experience, and I’m so glad Gushiken has finally been able to present the restaurant of his dreams.
El Cielo Tapas & Wine by Chef Masa
346 Lewers St., Honolulu
Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily
Prices: About $100 for two without alcohol
Nadine Kam’s restaurant visits are unannounced and paid for by Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Follow Nadine on Instagram (@nadinekam) or on YouTube (youtube.com/nadinekam).
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