By Dale Yasunaga
Special to Frolic Hawaii
Dining at the new Vintage Cave Cafe is a unique experience. You’ll find imported brick, custom murals, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, Norman Rockwell paintings and … slippahs. Yes, despite costing a reported $20 million to build and furnish, diners can come in shorts and T-shirts. Where the original Vintage Cave was inaccessible to many, Vintage Cave Cafe, open since late last year, aims to bring the same design aesthetic and experience at a more casual price point.
Much like Vintage Cave, where your 13-course French-Japonais dinner costs $300, this sister restaurant next to Shirokiya’s Japan Village Walk in Ala Moana Center’s Ewa wing transports you away from the islands. The entryway is more akin to a European cathedral than a restaurant in Hawaii. First-time diners are taken aback by the brick walls and dramatic lighting.
The impressive design continues into the dining room, where you’re met by sweeping frescoes and shimmering Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Every aesthetic detail here is elevated, all the way down to custom brick-print takeout containers. Between the main dining room and the bar sits a stage, featuring a 1946 Steinway S mahogany baby grand piano and live music throughout the week. It’s a paradoxical experience when diners at the next table are dressed in swim trunks.
The Italian-inspired menu is crafted by Taiki Oda, who apprenticed under a Michelin-starred chef in Parma, Italy. The ala carte menu includes sections for appetizers, soups, salads, Milan-style pastas, Napoli-style pizza, and entrees. Pizzas and pastas start at $20; the most expensive entree, a wagyu filet mignon, costs $48.
When this pizza arrived to our table it looked decidedly plain. Despite its appearance, we were pleased to find it packed a delicious level of flavor. The slight tang of ricotta cheese, the salty bite of pancetta and the herbaceous scent of rosemary all worked together. The crust was thin and crisp with just enough dough to support the toppings.
So much decadence in one bowl of pasta! Perfect al dente cooked pasta shells carry the rich, creamy mushroom sauce in each bite. The slight oceanic sweetness of scallops adds some lightness to the rich plate. Freshly shaved truffles round out the dish with a delightful aroma and subtle earthiness.
Uni pasta is a staple of Japanese Italian restaurants. Vintage Cave Cafe’s version adds bottarga to the mix for an extra layer of savoriness. Once again the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente. The briny, sweet flavor of uni envelopes the pasta with an occasional pop of acidity from the cherry tomatoes.
This was an extremely tender cut of filet mignon, full of the deep beef flavor you want from a steak. The red wine beet sauce gives the palate a break from the heavy beef. While the beef was delicious, the other elements on the plate were superfluous, particularly the arugula and cabbage garnish.
The desserts we tried were competent interpretations of tiramisu and semifreddo, although neither contained any standout elements. With a cup of coffee they were a pleasant end to the meal, but on a repeat visit I may forego dessert and opt for another pasta or pizza.
Vintage Cave Cafe’s website describes it as a “casual guest house for everyone, everyday.” Based on our visit, the only thing that’s casual is the dress code. The restaurant is stunningly beautiful, rivaled locally in uniqueness only by its sister restaurant. The menu contains many higher-end luxury ingredients such as wagyu beef and truffles. The price point, while much more accessible than Vintage Cave Honolulu, is still in the realm of other local fine dining establishments.
I do feel that Vintage Cave Cafe performs admirably in its niche of high-end Italian cuisine. The food is at least on par with, if not a cut above, other Japanese Italian restaurants such as Bernini. And while its price point leans more toward special occasion than casual weekday dinner, the overall experience is unique, given its design and art.
Vintage Cave Cafe
Ala Moana Center, next to Shirokya Village Walk