What a $295 dinner looks like


There are very few things I’ll splurge on.

Computers, cameras, surfboards — those are all worth the hefty price tags.

But food?

If you asked me before Jan. 4, I’d tell you no way. I can get a great meal for less than $10 — and I’m not just talking about a plate lunch from Rainbow Drive-In, either.

But when a friend of mine asked me to join him and a couple of others for dinner at Vintage Cave, the uber-fancy fine dining restaurant in the bowels of Ala Moana Center that showcases unique flavor combinations and techniques you don’t see in Honolulu.

Here’s the catch: the tasting menu is $295. And that’s without tax or tip.

There are a lot of things $295 can buy you. A Coach handbag. A decent underwater camera. And about 37 plate lunches.

But blowing it all on one meal? That didn’t compute.

Still, I decided to go. For one, it would great to hang out with this group of people I hadn’t seen in awhile. And secondly, how many opportunities do you get to eat food prepared by the Cave’s Chris Kajioka and a few heavy-hitting chefs from the Mainland?

Here are my gal pals, all sporting credit cards and big appetites!

On Jan. 4, Vintage Cave held its first collaboration dinner of 2014, with Blaine Wetzel (Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Wash.), Mourad Lahlou (Aziza in San Francisco), Viet Pham (Forage in Salt Lake City) and James Syhabout (Commis in Oakland, Calif.)

It was a 12-course dinner, including dessert by Vintage Cave executive pastry chef Rachel Murai. And it was going to take 4.5 hours from start to finish.

Good thing I had skipped lunch!

So here’s what a $295 meal looks like:

The first course — it actually came out a little later during dinner — was this foie gras ganache covered in crispy fried leeks. As one of my friends said, “It looks like hairy coconut balls.” True. But it didn’t taste like them. Silky smooth inside, super soft and delicate. Nice way to start the meal. Created by Pham.

Next up was the oysters from Kumamoto, Japan topped with cucumber and a delicate elderflower. I don’t eat oysters, so I passed on this. But it got rave reviews from my fellow diners, who were happy to take mine off the plate. Created by Kajioka.

This was called Kurt’s Carrots, another Kajioka dish. It was a one-bite carrot topped with toasted quinoa roe that added a nice texture to the appetizer. One of my favorites.

The fourth course was a king crab topped with caviar and lime bouillon, created by Syhabout. This was perfectly done, a magical combination in your mouth.

Here’s the roasted local abalone with bits of crispy chicken skins and native limu (seaweed) in a brown butter sauce. It was so good, one of my friends literally licked the bowl. Created by Pham.

Easily my favorite dish of the night. Here’s Lahlou’s slow-cooked egg with charmoula, smoked potato and harissa-spiced crispy rice. It almost tasted cheesy, this dish. Perfection on a plate.

That egg dish was immediately followed by one of my least favorite of the night: Wetzel’s soup of fresh herbs with confit tuna head that tasted exactly how it looked, at least to me.

Next was another Wetzel dish that didn’t work for me. This is grilled tuna bloodline — the darkest part of the tuna — with black trumpet mushrooms. To its credit, the mushrooms were tasty. But the bloodline wasn’t my favorite.

I was really excited for this dish by Syhabout: salted walnut ice cream with sprouted grains, truffle shavings and chestnuts, topped with brown sugar. It tasted like an earthy chestnut soup, which was warm, interestingly paired with the cold ice cream. It worked.

Kajioka, to me, gets it. And he nailed this one, too. This is a piece of fatty and flavorful beef with celery huckleberry, caramelized bone marrow, shaved white truffle in a black garlic sauce. As one of my friends said, “I feel like Chris cooks just for me.” I’d have to agree.

Lahou’s couscous was another show-stopper with a cauliflower-harissa emulsion and candied and fried black sesame seeds. Packed with flavor, perfectly cooked, a complete winner.

Time for dessert. Here’s Murai’s cranberry ginger sorbet — super small scoop — with an orange-charred meringue. I could have eaten several of these. The sorbet was so tangy and delicious, though it did overpower the meringue a bit. Nice palette cleanser.

That was followed up by a heavier dessert: this is the shio (salt) koji glace with kuro coma (black sesame) aleppo pepper and chocolate feuillantine praline. Lots of flavors all at once. A very complex dessert.

We ended the night with this tray of petit fours, a nice surprise after 12 courses of food. At least each dish was small, many of them just bites, so downing 12 plates wasn’t difficult. Still, I ate my petit four. Hey, it was free!

So the million-dollar question: would I spend $295 again? It depends. That was a special night, with food prepared by chefs from around the country. But it’s a lot to fork over, especially for one meal. But hey, sometimes you have to splurge.

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9 Responses to “What a $295 dinner looks like”

  1. Surfing at Sixty January 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    Thanks of sharing Cat!

  2. M January 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Hello Cat!
    I wouldn’t spend that kind of money on dinner. In my opinion, it’s not worth it to me. Even though it looks good, I would still have to go to Rainbows after because I would still be hungry.

  3. Annoddah Dave January 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    CAT: Remember what I told you back when, marry RICH!!!

  4. Dennis January 15, 2014 at 4:44 am #

    OMG! This is great for for my bariatric surgery which limits your food intake to around 8 ounces of food. But a little pricy for a Chinese boy! Rainbow Drive Inn after dinner snack. Thanks for giving me a look at the rich aspect of eating!

  5. Glenn D January 15, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    Glad to see that chefs are trying to use parts of tuna that are normally thrown away – the bloodline. That piece of flesh has a very strong flavor and is difficult to use. Mahalos for the pics!

  6. Glenn D January 15, 2014 at 7:12 am #

    BTW, I forgot to ask…
    I know you didn’t have the oysters but do you know what that foam was or what flavor the foam was that was on top of the oysters?

  7. dbjack January 15, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Well how can you pass that up. Some friends spend that much at dinner often. Not me, would have to be a big time special occasion. It all looks delicious but wow. Take a date there and spend $600 plus parking. That is a weekend on the Big Island. Tough call for sure. And then there is that new board you have been looking at of late. Really tough call.

  8. guest January 16, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    I use the bloodline for bait. I guess it’s true.

    “One man’s bait is another man’s dinner.”

    Oh Cat…so sorry to hear of your divorce. I never liked the look of that guy he looks sneaky like he’s hiding something maybe even a little gay. ha

  9. WildeOscar January 22, 2014 at 5:34 am #

    Those are spectacular pictures. I’m glad you splurged on your cameras and developed your eye for making great pictures before committing to invest in the food. Thank you for letting the rest of us see those plates. If the food tasted anywhere near as good as it looks, it was money well spent.

    BTW, the most I ever spent on a meal, per person, was probably about $150. I just don’t splurge on food. Your posting is a reminder that when the basics of live are taken care of, there’s always the possiblity of new experience close to home with those I care about, going a little more upscale in my choice of restaurants or trying a more expensive bottle of wine than I usually would.

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