When the Honolulu Design Center opened last year, my eyes were always drawn to the tall glass windows with over-sized white lanterns that overlooked Piikoi Street. The building itself is so impressive, and its mysterious interior designs excited my curiosity to find out more. If the design itself doesn't get you, the "couture cuisine" of Jon Matsubara will.
Stepping into the restaurant is like taking part in a theatrical performance with a black-and-white stage. Over-sized, sleek sculptures and gigantic photographs of artistically naked people moving in fluid actions create a somewhat eerie feeling of being reduced down in size, as you might feel if you had stage fright. Each table has its own character, each with a unique table, set of chairs, and an over-sized lamp. Accents of red flow throughout the black-and-white theme, and compliment the sea of lamps to create a playful atmosphere that off-sets the feeling of "stage fright." To add to the playfulness a bookshelf sits in the corner with rows of magazines sitting upside down.
My family and I sat at the "Fendi" designed table. The table itself was a snake-skinned covered table (with a glass top) with Fendi embellishments on the side. Above the table was a black lamp with a rhinestone Fendi emblem. I, myself, was impressed by this "designer" table; my father (manager of Salvatore Ferragamo) was (jokingly) insulted that there wasn't any Ferragamo tables.
The menu continues on with the theatrical theme as appetizers are called "overtures" and entrees are called "denouement."
After ordering appetizers, we were greeted by a server with a tray full of assorted dinner rolls. You are encouraged to try all of them throughout the night, and I highly encourage trying a variety (while still saving room for your meal) because they are very delicious! My favorite was the pumpkin roll, which was a slightly sweet and buttery roll that melts in your mouth, accented by toasty pumpkin seeds.
The appetizers were very inventive and equally satisfying. My family and I ordered the beet salad (the night's special), "STAGE Caesar Salad," Frog Legs "Kara-age," and White Bean Soup.
The beet salad was an elegant presentation of roasted golden beets atop a bed of goat cheese topped off with spiced walnuts and a light pesto. The goat cheese was delicate and creamy, pairing well with the sweet beets and crunchy walnuts. This was my favorite appetizer of the night and it deserves to be a regular on the menu!
The Stage Caesar Salad was the most inventive appetizer, as it was a variation on the "typical" caesar salad, as it was wrapped like a vietnamese summer roll. This salad used Hirabara Farms Baby Romaine Lettuce wrapped in Rice Paper and included heirloom tomatoes, Manchego cheese, garlic croutons, and a white anchovy vinaigrette. As you bite into the "roll" you immediately notice the tender rice paper and lettuce leaves and its pairing with the delicate, yet, flavorful vinaigrette.
The most daring appetizer on the menu was the Frog Legs "Kara-age." As daring as it sounds, the frog legs really did taste like chicken! The legs were covered in a light crispy batter and paired with a Torarashi Aioli and Japanese Citrus. This dish is better with frog legs than it would be with chicken because the frog legs were very tender and mild.
Next, the manager provided my family with a complementary appetizer (because my dad knew him) of a green tea soba salad with lightly seared Hamachi. The presentation looked impressive, as the dish looked like a flying saucer.
For my entree, I ordered the night's special, which as a Potato Scaled Mahi with Kahuku Prawns and a Kona Lobster Ahi Hash, served with an ancho chili tomato coulis. The mahi was covered with a skin of paper-thin potatoes and lightly fried to create a delicately crispy crust. This preparation reminded me of a dish I once saw on Top Chef. Honestly, this dish was not very memorable, and the sauce was over-powering and salty, which did not allow the flavors of the seafood to shine through.
My step-mom ordered the "Duet of Lamb" which she enjoyed. This dish was lamb prepared two ways: one was a Black Cardamom Spiced Lamb Chop with Green Olive and "Minus 8" Ice Wine Verjus, the second was a Tuscan Style Braised Lamb with Herb Salad and Parmesan Polenta.
The rest of my family ordered the Whole Crispy Moi. This moi was presented whole with the center removed, and filled with the fish, lightly battered tofu, watercress salad and bonito flakes, topped off with a spicy ponzu sauce. Although this dish was good, in retrospect, it did not seem to compare to the excitement of the appetizers and desserts.
The most exciting part of the evening was the dessert. Here, the playful characteristics of the restaurant and menu really have a chance to shine. Pastry Chef Mark Okumura offers a wide array of unique and decadent desserts.
To start, the restaurant presented me with a special birthday cake made from a delicate white cake with a strawberry filling. This was so perfect for me because I just love strawberries!
I ordered the "Fantasy of Chocolate" which is a fancy array of nine different chocolate desserts made from the finest chocolates. The presentation alone was enough to get me excited, but when I tasted each one of the chocolates I experienced bliss!
The other really great dessert was the "pop tart." This was a dressed-up version of the famous breakfast pastry. Although it even looked like a pop-tart, this dessert was much more special. The flaky outer shell was filled with Hawaiian vanilla, poached fuji apple and almonds. The dessert also included a wafer bowl filled with balsamic-cinnamon black currant ice cream. A very creative (and delicious) twist on an two old favorites! My apologies for the blurry picture!
Two other desserts that were fun, but not as exciting were the "milk and cookies" (two freshly baked oatmeal cookies with a warm chai milk) and the orange creamscicle dessert (orange sorbet floating in a vanilla syrup with sparkling voss water poured over).
The night ended with a plate of petite fours. I had absolutely no room for more, but after loving everything I had just tasted, I couldn't leave without just tasting each of them. They did not disappoint me. If I wasn't so full, it would have been a really nice way to end the meal!
Overall, the entire experience was overwhelmingly exciting. The service was excellent, as the servers, bussers, and sommelier all provided a comfortable dining experience. The least exciting part of the meal was the entree; but the appetizers and desserts made up for it ten-fold!
Honolulu Design Center
1250 Kapiolani Blvd.