Vintage Cave: The Chef and the Blank-Check Restaurant
Can a “crazy” chef artist—and his Medici-like wealthy sponsor—put fine dining in Hawaii back on the map?
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It’s not because Vintage Cave is a blank-check restaurant that it’s noteworthy—rather, it’s in spite of the ostentatious wealth, which, on display in the dining room, can detract from Kajioka’s deceptively simple food.
Take the golden osetra caviar dish, which appears to be a token caviar and crème fraiche opening to a luxe din
ner. Culinary technique-wise, it’s often the equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not at Vintage Cave. Here, the cream is Hakurei turnips blended with milk, and the requisite toast points give way to a wakame rice cracker that Kajioka makes. But the real indication that there is something different going on in this kitchen, whether you realize it or not, is the dashi. Kajioka thickens it slightly so it drapes over the caviar, smooths out the fishy saltiness and gives it a smoky undertone. The dashi is made with bonito Kajioka cures himself. He’s probably the only chef in town who undertakes this process, which can take six months or more and involves repeated drying and smoking of aku filets to deliver a concentrated hit of umami.
Kajioka’s signature dish—he’s been doing variations of this for years—is ikura soaked in dashi to infuse it with more flavor, an idea he swiped from Izakaya Gaku. He sets it over potatoes pureed with half their weight in butter (this, naturally, a French technique, by way of Joël Robuchon). Slivers of green apple and Korean watercress leaves adorn the cascade of ikura, a nod to Kajioka’s time in San Francisco, a city with a fetish for raw ingredients. The result: silky with pops of roe, tart and sweet and salty, finished with a paper-thin shaving of the house-cured bonito, which tastes like the bacon of the sea. With this dish, you can see the synthesis of Kajioka’s influences.
But the dish that draws the most praise in a preview dinner for Honolulu chefs is the charred cabbage. Cabbage! In a sequence of courses that involves truffles and foie! But this is what it takes to impress chefs: to take something so humble—boring, even—and to elevate it to the level of $60 per pound beef (another one of Vintage Cave’s courses). Here, Kajioka poaches cabbage sous vide with butter, caramelizes it and accents it with dill and kombu as pliant as a fruit roll up. It’s a dish that borrows heavily from The Willows Inn, though Kajioka makes it his own by anointing the dish with a kombu broth seasoned with ginger and Korean fermented anchovies, an ingredient inspired by his mother-in-law’s fridge.
“Vintage Cave may not be affordable or perhaps even understood by many, but just the fact it resides here is inspirational,” says Henry Adaniya of Hank’s Haute Dogs. “It is a culinary quantum leap for us in the vein of world-class cuisine.” As in fashion, even those that can’t directly experience the haute will taste its effects down the chain. Adaniya may be the epitome of that trickle-down effect, a restaurateur who launched the career of Grant Achatz (one of America’s most influential chefs) but left fine dining to open a hot dog shack in Kaka‘ako.
Barely a month into opening, Kajioka is fielding stage requests from within Hawai‘i and around the country. In Honolulu’s fine dining arena, there is finally a place at which cooks are begging to work. Vintage Cave will draw cooks who will then populate other Hawai‘i restaurants, and maybe even open their own.
Consider this: Sheldon Simeon, current Top Chef contestant, Hilo-born and managing four restaurants in Maui, is staging at Vintage Cave. One of his restaurants: a plate-lunch eatery in Lahaina. It may be that only the elite dine at Vintage Cave, but its influence will be tasted by many others.