I have a friend who's a total wino. She's pretty fussy about what she eats and drinks but whatever it is, it's usually pretty bougie. So when we came across a sign at the Royal Hawaiian Center directing us up to a new wine bar, we both lit up with excitement: she for the wine and me for the food.
Island Vintage Wine Bar, tucked behind its popular coffee shop cousin, has been in the works for five years. Paul Kang, who owns and operates 11 Island Vintage Coffee shops across Hawaii and Japan, travels a lot for work and has searched for a wine bar where he could kick back and enjoy a glass or two of fabulous wine without having to dress up. Island Vintage Wine Bar, which grand opens today, is the result.
Immediately I'm drawn to the double-sided case of 300-plus wine bottles chilling at a cool 66 degrees because I wish I was one of them. Balmy tradewinds flow through the open-air space, keeping it comfortable enough with slacks in the evening. Seating for 60 includes communal hightops, two- and four-top tables, a bar and low chairs suitable for sipping an afternoon away while watching the family of mano o Ku nesting in a tree outside.
Five Wineemotion wine dispensers hold an additional 40 bottles that you can sample by the ounce. There's a 2004 cabernet from Chateau Cos d'Estoumel ($29 an ounce), Napa cult wines like Opus One ($37 an ounce), and obscure and esoteric varietals like Gruner-Veltliner from Austria or an oaked Viognier from France. Each cabinet holds a rotating selection of eight wines that are grouped into light and crisp whites, full-bodied whites, fruity reds, medium reds and full-bodied reds. Find a type you enjoy and taste a few until you find the one you want.
By comparison, Amuse Wine Bar, the first in Hawaii to debut a similar wine dispensing system, has 80 bottles. Off The Wall Craft opened in South Shore Market in January with five self-serve wines and on the windward side, D'Vine Kailua Wine Bar opened June 5 with 32 Wineemotion wines.
The bottle list, curated with the help of Matthew Dulle of San Francisco's Lazy Bear, is approachable and well-rounded with about 100 labels to start. You'll be hard-pressed to find a glass or bottle that doesn't linger on the brain or keep your expenses in check. In addition to Wineemotion experimentation, you have the option of ordering bottles ($30-484 with 50 bottles under $90), flights or glasses ($11-31 with most around $15).
There's also a handful of sakes ($27-75 a bottle) and several local craft beers on tap ($6-8) and imported beer by the bottle ($11-14).
We're celebrating and want some bubbly to enjoy with dinner. At the recommendation of wine director Mark Cartland we settle on an exceptional bottle of Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne Champagne ($90) made with a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes. We were told it's nearly impossible to find this due its popularity on the west coast but it somehow found its way to Hawaii. Cartland, a sommelier for 10 years, has worked at Bay Area restaurants including James Beard Award-winning Slanted Door and veggie-focused Greens Restaurant.
From 7:30 a.m., the wine bar serves as overflow for the bustling cafe next door, where a robust brunch includes several benedicts, acai bowls and kimchee fried rice. You can ask for the wine bar menu anytime but from 5 p.m. onwards, it's all you will get.
Start with the burrata ($20) which arrives glistening on slivers of Frankie's sweet Honey Cream pineapple, balsamic pearls, prosciutto di parma and peppery arugula. Served alongside grilled bread, this is a contender for the best burrata plate on the island.
Any wine bar worth its weight offers charcuterie and cheese boards. Island Vintage's are $19 and $17, respectively. Personally, a charcuterie and a burrata with a bottle of pinot noir and I'm not leaving my seat for a while.
The handcut purple sweet potato fries ($8) aren't your typical sweet potato fry. They're a little more dense and have a starchiness that makes them more al dente than crisp. It's the pot of smoked aioli, which has notes of honey mustard and truffle, that make them passable for me. Other tapas include nori chips ($8), a truffle mac and cheese ($12) and salmon sashimi with sea asparagus ($15).
The wagyu smashburger ($16) with cheddar, wasabi aioli, heirloom tomatoes, grilled onion and pickles plus fries and a small green salad is only available before 5 p.m. and delivers beefy satisfaction. Other lunch options include a Korean-style spicy pork rice bowl ($16) and fish and chips with a squid ink mochi crust ahd housemade tartar sauce ($17).
For dinner I try the koji-smoked pork belly ($19). Right off the bat, the way the slices are artfully fanned out like bossam tells me the dish has Korean origins. Christine Lee, who is responsible for the food at Island Vintage stores, confirms it was inspired in part by her mother's cooking. Although I'm partial to crispy pork skin, I appreciate the thin, chewy layer on this pork. Eaten alone, the orange fennel salad imparts too much anise for my taste.
An order of garlic rice ($3) is pure, garlicky goodness. It's hard to pass up, especially when it's paired with the pork belly. Of the remaining sides, I recommend the grilled alii mushrooms ($5) over the broccolini ($5) which would benefit from a bit of char or spice to match the other two in flavor.
Natto black sesame ice cream sandwiches (three for $9) catch my eye. When fermented soybeans are on the dessert menu, you perk up and squint: Did I read that correctly? Yep, you sure did.
If you love natto, don't expect that bold flavor to show up. It's masked by the nutty black sesame ice cream and the brittle is just too sweet. If you're not a fan of the famous slime, don't be afraid. This is actually a tasty dessert.
As we eat, more details reveal themselves. We're sipping from $40-a-glass Sophienwald handmade stemware, selected to enhance the mouthfeel of wine. Adorable salt and pepper mills at each table are made by Peugeot of France. The coppertone flatware is etched with the bar's logo and nearly all of the wood you see was sourced from a downed mango tree. The place has all the touches of an upscale wine bar — a knowledgable somm, delicious bites and choice wines — but you can stop in with your fresh-from-the-beach look and that's OK. That's why I'm coming back.
That and the fact that my wino friend has probably crossed a few bottles off her list already and I need to catch up.
Island Vintage Wine Bar
Royal Hawaiian Center
Building C, level 2
2301 Kalakaua Ave.
7:30 a.m. - 12 a.m. daily
Two hours of validated parking with $10 minimum purchase, then $2 each for the third and fourth hours