Inside a 5 Thousand Dollar-a-Night Hotel, Mugen’s 8-course Tasting Menu is an Affordable Luxury
We review the restaurant at the Espacio Waikīkī hotel.
Tagliatelle with poached Kona lobster
photos: courtesy of aqua-aston hospitality
If you’re going to open a restaurant in a new Waikīkī hotel with a single three-bedroom suite on every floor, each with its own dry sauna and butlers at guests’ disposal, your concept needs to fit.
But what would that concept be?
That was the challenge facing Jason Yamaguchi, who, within a month of meeting the Japanese owners of the new Espacio Waikīkī last March, took the job as executive chef of the hotel restaurant, Mugen (which means “infinity” in Japanese). And it hadn’t even been built yet.
“The vision was being super unique with endless possibilities,” says the 35-year-old L.A.-born chef who has worked for California celeb chefs Michael Mina and Joachim Splichal. “[The owners] gave me full rein to do whatever I wanted. … It was supposed to be modern American cuisine, but I thought, how can I twist that without making it too weird?”
So this is what he did: He took Japanese and French cuisines, which have similar cooking methods and techniques, and fused the two. It’s not a new idea, but somehow he manages to create dishes that feel modern and original.
Yamaguchi—the nephew of chef Roy Yamaguchi for whom he worked in California—created a menu for Mugen inspired by seasonal ingredients, personal favorites and, to be honest, dinnerware. He plans to travel to Japan four times a year to pick out new dishes for each course. Recently, he found a pasta bowl that’s shaped more like a cylinder and is working on a dish to match it.
In its first four months, Mugen enjoyed buzz from local foodies and earned a spot on USA Today’s Best New Restaurant list. (Mugen was No. 6 and the only Hawai‘i restaurant to make the list.) Fans raved about its menu, which highlights locally sourced ingredients—Kona lobster, Big Island honeycomb, local goat cheese—and high-end products including caviar and fish flown in from Toyosu Fish Market in Japan. (Because of the reliance on such seasonal ingredients, the dinner tasting menu changes often, sometimes every week.) What’s amazing to me is that with such attention to detail and a seemingly infinite budget—the restaurant gets daily seafood shipments from Japan and, starting in the spring, white asparagus from Denmark—Yamaguchi is able to keep his eight-course tasting menu between $120 and $150 a person. In Waikīkī? With a course of Sasanian Osetra caviar? Amazing.
When I dined at Mugen, it was a couple of months after it had opened. The dining room had just four tables, situated around a small kitchen, where Yamaguchi and his staff cooked and plated. The hotel was still working on enclosing the adjacent patio, which will increase the number of seats by another 36. (This area was scheduled to open by March.)
Gnocchi with uni flown in from Hokkaido
The eight-course dinner tasting menu we had started with an enticing amuse bouche of Sasanian Osetra caviar atop a small mochi blini with a disc of vanilla bean panna cotta and cured yolk—the signature dish on the menu. The blini was chewy, the chilled panna cotta silky, the caviar a nice balance of saltiness.
Our next dish—red sea crab, chopped and served with a yuzu-kosho aioli, edamame coulis and a black sesame tuile—was one that Yamaguchi threw together an hour before service. He discovered an abundance of fresh crab in the kitchen and didn’t know what to do with it. “We took the edamame we had and took dashi and made a coulis out of it. Then I told someone to make a sesame tuile. Then we got the crab and added cucumbers and said we’d figure out the plating,” Yamaguchi says, laughing. “And it worked out.”
The third course was an example of dinnerware inspiring a dish. Yellow heirloom beets were sliced carpaccio-style and arranged in a circle on a ceramic plate with blue and white designs that echoed the plating of the salt-roasted beets. It was stunning.
Next came my favorite dish of the night: house-made tagliatelle with poached Kona lobster in a frothy, flavorful Parmesan foam dusted with dehydrated seaweed and topped with a generous shaving of white Alba truffles. This dish is so popular, Yamaguchi decided to keep it on a dinner à la carte menu, slated to start in March, along with a generous rack of lamb and seafood bouillabaisse served in a stone pot.
After a spoonful of pineapple sorbet drizzled with shiso oil, we indulged in a dish of perfectly cooked medallion of Colorado lamb and spiced panisse made from chickpeas before two—yes, two—courses of dessert. (I already like this place.)
The first was called Milk & Honey, with crumbles of Big Island honeycomb and fennel sugar cane; the second was a butterscotch pot de crème, with Chantilly cream, hazelnut streusel, hibiscus sugar cane, an addictive caramel sauce and chocolate pearls. I almost licked the plate.
It was 9 p.m. Dinner was over in a little more than two hours. And despite the small portions, I felt satisfied, no urge to get in the car and hit the nearest drive-thru. (I’ve actually done that after another fancy prix fixe.)
A new tasting menu was slated to launch in March. One dish Yamaguchi is bringing back to the spring menu is the house-made gnocchi with uni flown in from Hokkaido, edamame and Comté, a French cheese similar to Gruyère. Lunch started in February with à la carte dishes ranging from $7 to $40: Miyagi oysters, lamb belly ragu pappardelle, a Kona abalone bowl with crab rice, a roasted local chicken katsu sandwich made with milk bread and demi-glace jam.
I know where I’ll be having lunch next.
Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; dinner seatings at 5 and 7:30 p.m. daily, $120-150 for tasting menu, add $70 for wine pairings. 2452 Kalākaua Ave., (808) 377-2247, espaciowaikiki.com, free valet parking.