Mugen Waikīkī Adds Heart to Luxury with Its New Spring Menu
Jason Yamaguchi’s new menu celebrates spring in 11 lively courses fit for a special occasion.
Let this sink in: A one-night stay at the Espacio Waikīkī starts at $5,000. So it’s no surprise that Mugen, Espacio’s intimate restaurant, carries a price tag fit for a luxe experience to match. And with that price tag comes a lot of expectations. Last November I was invited to try Mugen’s previous menu, which totaled 11 courses for $150. Sadly, it did not develop into a memorable experience for me.
While there were a few dishes I liked, none of them stood out. I only found myself appreciating the techniques and opulent collection of ingredients, not enough to justify the splurge. I enjoy tasting menus because when done right, they tell a story. I didn’t understand the story that chef Jason Yamaguchi was trying to tell. Also, the majority of the dishes were just not yummy to me—a metric I hold against any style of dining.
High-level tasting menus haven’t taken off in Honolulu the way that they have in San Francisco or New York. I wonder if it’s because local eaters, although sporting much more seasoned palates these days, are still sentimental at heart. In a world where everything considered fine dining seems to be laced with truffles and caviar, shouldn’t we be looking for something more?
I was recently invited back to try Yamaguchi’s 11-course spring menu, now priced at $225, or $335 when paired with wine. Not only am I pleasantly surprised, I’m genuinely delighted at the progression of flavors and textures he and his team coax from luxurious ingredients layered with locally sourced details. The meal, set against the background of Espacio, is abundant, tasty and joyful.
SEE ALSO: Inside a 5 Thousand Dollar-a-Night Hotel, Mugen’s 8-course Tasting Menu is an Affordable Luxury
We commence on a fun note with a crème frâiche-filled andagi topped with osetra caviar and shavings of cured egg yolk. Although this particular style of amuse-bouche is not uncommon, the nod to a local soul food juxtaposed with the grandeur of caviar makes me smile. This is what makes haute cuisine a little more endearing.
Our next course is Dutch asparagus surrounded by dollops of black truffle sauce. The spring vegetable is cooked ever so slightly and tastes like it was just plucked from the ground. The kitchen finishes the dish with a lush, lip-smacking sabayon, a creamy sauce made with egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine. Fast-forward to the third course and I’m smiling again. After a refreshing raw dish of aohata (yellow grouper) with spherified lemongrass “roe,” shio shoyu and aromatics, our servers deliver plates of Parisienne gnocchi in a puddle of chunky tomato sauce. The gnocchi, pan-fried little pillows of pâte à choux, are tasty, piping hot and laced with butter, each one a little prize. The funky Sweet Land Farms tomme cheese balances so well with the sweet tanginess of the sauce. I’ve been craving this dish from the moment I left Mugen; it inspired me to try making my own at home.
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The fish course features amadai prepared with its scales pushed against the grain. Scalding hot oil is ladled over the fillet until it is opaque and the scales are fried, resulting in delicately cooked white flesh covered with a layer of crispy skin. But that’s not even the best part: Underneath is a tiny parcel of choux farci au turbot, fish steamed inside a green cabbage leaf, moist and rich with the flavor of the sea. Dunking each bite into the velvety parsnip purée and the deeply satisfying chamomile dashi, it reminds me of a soup my friend’s grandmother used to make and with a generous portion of fish, too. Crisp and juicy balls of nashi pear and cooked cabbage balance out the textures with a surprising pop of sweetness—a pop art deco moment that is unexpected on a few levels, including the plate, whose color mimics the pink skin of the amadai (I should note that Yamaguchi works with craftsmen in Japan to source and develop dishware that inspires him).
The A5 Miyazaki wagyu preparation is as solid as it was the last time. This season, it’s plated with tiny pools of steamed chawanmushi savory custard and veal jus. The meat melts in your mouth with a gorgeous caramelized exterior. The kakiage panisse is steamy and flavorful with golden brown edges, while the silky carrot purée offers a light sweetness.
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One of my favorites of the night is the cheese course because if it were up to me, every meal would have one. Tonight, pastry chef Jamon Harper prepares a California Laura Chenel goat cheese sandwiched between two herbs de Provence shortbread biscuits. Thin and delicate, the combination is scrumptious. Harper’s first of two desserts is a coffee bean-shaped cake made of double cream resting on a graham cracker base lightly sprayed with Mānoa Chocolate’s Kealakekua 70% dark chocolate. It’s light and rich at the same time with a restrained sweetness. His second dessert attracts our gazes to the pass as he puts the finishing touches on a whimsical plate.
Matcha white chocolate is painted onto the plate in a flower arrangement mimicking a sakura branch, with salted cherry blossoms tacked in place with dollops of raspberry purée. Spring! A light, tangy blood orange mousse cake is balanced by sweet candied fruits. The bold flavors and well-calculated use of salt and unique textures are on point.
A full play-by-play of this meal would reveal all of the surprises Yamaguchi has in his spring story. Suffice it to say that the harmony between Yamaguchi, Harper, sous chef Regis Wong and the rest of the team is palpable. I’m comfortably full and appreciate the effortless pace that gave me time to savor each dish. The combination of globally and locally sourced ingredients makes for a fun and tasty dinner that I would gladly splurge on for a special occasion. In fact, my birthday is coming up. You’ll probably catch me celebrating at Mugen.
2452 Kalākaua Ave, (808) 377-2247, mugenwaikiki.com, @mugenwaikiki