On Stage

Does Honolulu want another big-league restaurant? Thomas Sorensen is betting $3 million it does.

“When I told people I was going to build a restaurant, they all told me I was frickin’ nuts,” says Thomas Sorensen.

Not just any restaurant, either. A $3 million, 5,000-square-foot, high-end restaurant on the second floor of a furniture store.

“When they said that, it just incited me more.” Sorensen had, after all, just bet $50 million on erecting the innovative, three-story Honolulu Design Center on Kapi‘olani Boulevard. What was $3 million more?

Throughout his career, the 51-year-old Sorenson has been rolling the dice. As a teenager in his native Denmark, he bought surplus and damaged furniture from factories and resold it. “Furniture just reached out and got me,” he says.

In 1979, he moved to Honolulu and founded Scan/Design. In 1987 he moved to Sparks, Nev., to manufacture office seating, where his company, Via, broke the mold. It specialized in products like the $700 Swopper, a high-tech stool that allows whoever’s perched on it to tilt, sway and bounce simultaneously. But Hawai‘i had a hold on him. In 1997, he came back and started Inspiration, a Pearlridge furniture showroom. He sold Via, and thus financed, set out to achieve what he’d wanted all along, a design center in the heart of Honolulu.

After seven years of planning and some real estate shuffling, he and partner Peter Skaaning got it up: 80,000 square feet of furniture showrooms, complete with coffee bar, martini bar, automated wine bar and an events space called the Cupola, which is already getting heavy use for opera and jazz performances, fashion shows and meetings. Why all the frills? Perhaps they are marketing tools—how else do you get people to wander into a furniture showroom and impulse buy a $10,000 Fendi couch? Sorensen says, “I just like to have fun.”

But the idea seemed to run a little deeper. How do you get people to appreciate innovative design in furniture? By getting them to appreciate all the arts.

Years before the Honolulu Design Center broke ground, Sorensen was doing ads for his Pearlridge furniture store that spotlighted a whole range of local artists—not so much for their celebrity value as for their creative contributions: Tau Dance Theatre’s Peter Rockford Espiritu, fashion designer Anne Namba, Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Henry Akina.

Sorensen threw parties at the store that would have jazzman Noel Okimoto playing vibes, with folks like Paliku Theatre’s Tom Holowach and singer Raiatea Helm hanging out amid the couches and sectionals. In one corner, young architect Matt Gilbert would unveil his plans for the upcoming Design Center, with its double curves and flared ends.

If you’re going to support the visual, musical, theatrical and architectural arts—why not the culinary? God knows Honolulu could use it.

Since the creative burst of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the Hawai‘i regional chefs transformed the restaurant scene, we’ve seen few new chef-driven restaurants. New chain restaurants, sure, from the Mainland and Japan. But barely any start-up restaurants where the excitement comes directly from the kitchen.

Chef Jon Matsubara has designs on your tastebuds.

Sorensen called his new restaurant Stage. For him, naturally enough, the restaurant was a stage for furniture. Unlike a conventional restaurant, the tables, chairs and lamps at Stage aren’t all the same. There are Fendi and Philippe Starck tables, wild lighting fixtures from Dutch design firm Moooi.

“I was going to change the dining room every year, but maybe not,” he says. “I don’t think I can top it.” No one else is likely to, either, since most restaurateurs don’t own furniture stores.

But, if you ask me, a dining room is only the stage for drama in the kitchen. The food has to delight and surprise. Sorensen searched the Islands for the next star chef—and found Jon Matsubara at CanoeHouse on the Big Island.

Matsubara is, in his own way, as nuts as Sorensen. He quit law school to become a dishwasher at Alan Wong’s, the only job for which Wong felt he was qualified. After working his way up to line cook, he went off to culinary school in New York and worked some top-end Manhattan eateries—Bouley, Tabla, Jean-George.

When Matsubara heard what Sorensen was up to, “I just had to do it,” he says.

“It’s all up to Jon now,” says Sorensen. “He’s got a restaurant right in town with plenty of parking. He got the kitchen he wanted and the ingredients he needed. He got the staff he wanted. There are no excuses.”

Matsubara’s staff is something of an Alan Wong alumni reunion—Charlie Yoshida, who opened King Street for Wong, operations manager Scott Armstrong, and, perhaps the prize catch, celebrated pastry chef Mark Okumura, who Wong had originally lured away from the Halekulani.

“In addition, we had a lot of guys in the kitchen who took cuts in pay or title to work here,” says Matsubara. “All chefs dream of this, and right now we are living the dream.”

Is the food dreamy enough to get Honolulu diners to order $14 appetizers and $40 entrées?

The fact that both my wife and oldest daughter have birthdays in the same week afforded a suitably festive occasion to find out.

There was some oohing and ahhing over the dining room. The server handed my daughter’s boyfriend a remote control so he could make the elaborate lighting fixture above the table change colors. My wife could not resist holding the menu in front of her face, since it has two eyeholes cut into it, as if it were a masquerade mask.

But I was neither surprised nor delighted until the food showed up. I ordered the four-course prix fixe dinner (at $71, reasonably priced as these things go). First out was a single brown organic egg, cooked and returned to the shell. I’ve had this high-end version of scrambled eggs before. The egg’s often cooked with foie gras or truffles, or both, and topped with caviar.

In a local touch, Matsubara cooked it with uni, just enough sea urchin to enrich the flavor, not enough to overpower. Then he topped it with green onions and ikura marinated in sake, yuzu and red miso, so that the orange-red salmon eggs burst in your mouth with flavor.

I was enthralled by the texture of the egg itself. It was homogenous, not lumpy like scrambled eggs, more like a soup but with a richer mouth feel. To get an egg like that, Matsubara told me later, you have to whisk it constantly for about 15 minutes cooking over low heat, a technique he learned in the kitchen at Jean-George.

That was just the first of two appetizers on the prix fixe menu. The second was a Dungeness crab salad in which, remarkably, crab wasn’t the star ingredient. Instead, it was wedges of Big Island grapefruit marinated in ginger syrup, so they lost all bitterness and managed to be both sweet and acid simultaneously. Add some fennel for crunch, sprinkle with tobiko.

I could not prevail on anyone else at the table to join me with the prix fixe. They all had their own minds. For instance, they wanted the grilled prawns, topped with chips of deep-fried artichoke and sitting on that powerful, thick Spanish sauce called Romesco.

Or a Caesar salad of Hirabara Farms baby romaine that, wrapped in rice paper like spring rolls, became finger food.

The most delicious thing looked like a little sea creature, swimming in what’s called a nage (think a little puddle of thin sauce).

It turned out to be alternating layers of thinly sliced raw yellowtail ‘ahi and Kona amberjack, with what looked like fins or feelers made from thin-sliced black radish. A nage is often a clear vegetable broth or bouillon, but this one was more or less a ponzu—shoyu with both lime and lemongrass, given a richness and almost undetectable sweetness by fresh ginger syrup.

This was serious food. We hadn’t even gotten to the entrées yet. The meat courses were both “duets.” The lamb course came with both chops and a lamb shank cooked like osso buco in a rich tomato sauce. “Oh, boy,” said my daughter. “Can you eat the marrow?”

The chops were tinged with black cardamom, mustard seed, coriander, the kind of subtle use of Indian spice that Matsubara must have learned in the kitchen at Tabla from nouveau Indian chef Floyd Cardoz.

Spice or not, they were killer lamb chops. “They better be,” laughed Matsubara. “We pay a fortune for them.” He gets them from Mountain Meadow in Colorado.

The beef dish was similarly doubled—a diminutive Wagyu beef strip steak on mashed potatoes (just meat and potatoes seemed to be the idea) and a short-rib braised in zinfandel, with a horseradish crust, on a parsnip purée zapped up with Meyer lemon.

The lamb was supposed to be my entrée. But my daughter wanted it, and it was her birthday. I had, instead, something rather bland compared to the pyrotechnics around the table—lobster, scallops and a mahimahi fillet, its skin replaced by “scales” cut from potato, topped with deep-fried ogo.

As might be expected, this also came with a nage—a more conventional one of lobster broth. And a breadstick.

Usually you just pick up the breadstick decorating a dish and set it aside. But this was freshly made by Mark Okumura, seasoned and herbed, and still hot from the grill. Perfect for dunking in the broth. When you find yourself finishing a breadstick before tucking into your lobster, you’re in a restaurant that pays attention to detail.

The coq au vin is the most flavorful one the reviewer has ever tasted. The liquid in the pot is so rich that it is the Bill Gates of wine sauces.

Tasty and elaborate as these entrées were, they were just prologue to the coq au vin of Blue Foot chicken. A Blue Foot chicken (yes, its feet are really blue) is an American-raised version of the legendary poulet de Bresse, the chicken that Paul Bocuse made famous (or perhaps vice versa).

Bresse is a place. By French law, you can’t call a chicken poulet de Bresse unless it ranged free through the fields there. The Japanese, who haven’t been as successful keeping Americans from calling their Wagyu beef “Kobe,” should take lessons.

“If you pay $32 for Blue Foot chicken, you ought to get the foot,” joked my wife. When the coq au vin came in its little iron pot, sure enough, there was a foot. “I have to send the foot out,” says Matsubara. “People kept asking for it. Lots of people, especially other chefs, demand to come in the kitchen and see the chicken.”

The color of the foot is not the important thing. Filled with chicken and Hamakua mushrooms, this was the most flavorful coq au vin I’ve ever tasted. Just the liquid in the pot is so rich that it’s the Bill Gates of wine sauces. And if that’s not enough, the dish is topped with a freshly grilled slice of foie gras.

Matsubara was reluctant to tell me how he made his coq au vin so powerful. “It’s a secret,” he said. I persisted. A real old-school coq au vin calls not only for a whole bottle of wine and an aged rooster, but also chicken blood and liver. As far as Matsubara was concerned, chicken blood was a non-starter. He replaced it with brandy. But he does purée the liver with some brandy and wine and adds it to the dish, whisking it in off the heat, until it’s absorbed and thickens the sauce.

Why’s that a secret? Because most people think they hate liver. “They like it fine if they don’t know it’s there,” says Matsubara. The sauce makes the foie gras, which might otherwise feel like an intrusion, meld into the flavor profile of the dish.

I was so full from my own entrée and much of the coq au vin that I just sat there stunned when my dessert arrived. Envision a large plate crosshatched like tic-tac-toe. In each of the nine squares is some kind of chocolate: a chocolate cherry brownie, a bittersweet chocolate dacquoise with hazelnut meringue, Okumura’s fabled Hawaiian crunch bars, even a little chocolate cup of rich cocoa.

The rest of the table was ravaging my plate, when suddenly the two birthday girls were presented with their own little chocolate cakes, covered with whipped cream and berries, their names inscribed on the plate. (“We always have birthday cakes back there, ready to go,” says Matsubara.)

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful,” said my daughter, after finishing about half her cake. “But I really wanted to order a dessert.”

Presented with a menu, she ordered the Pop-Tart. Really. A little apple pie made up just like a Pop-Tart, topped with golden almonds. There were some other little apple-y things on the plate, but the thing that really caught my spoon was the ice cream, powerfully cinnamony with something just a little sharp … balsamic vinegar. Okumura can do anything.

Dinner for four, with tip, was $386. In San Francisco, New York, Chicago, it would have been easily $500 to $600. My daughter’s boyfriend had a couple of Heinekens, I had a glass of Lavantureux chablis with the appetizers, a Landmark chardonnay with seafood, a Dutton Ranch pinot noir with the coq au vin.

The rest of the bill was all food, but what food! I hope Honolulu deserves a pair as crazy as Sorensen and Matsubara.

John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.