Land it sinks in: a one-night stay at the Espacio Waikīkī starts at $5,000. It’s no surprise, then, that Mugen, Espacio’s intimate restaurant, is priced befitting a luxury experience. And with that price comes a lot of expectation. Last November I was invited to try Mugen’s previous menu which totaled 11 dishes for $150. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn into a memorable experience for me.
Although there were a few dishes that I liked, none of them stood out. I found myself appreciating the techniques and the opulent collection of ingredients, not enough to justify the splurge. I love tasting menus because when done right, they tell a story. I didn’t understand the story Chef Jason Yamaguchi was trying to tell. Also, the majority of the dishes were just not delicious to me – a measure I hold against any style of dining.
High-level tasting menus haven’t taken off in Honolulu the way they have in San Francisco or New York. I wonder if it’s because the local eaters, despite having much more seasoned palates these days, are still sentimental at heart. In a world where everything considered fine dining seems to be laced with truffles and caviar, shouldn’t we be looking for something more?
I was recently invited to try Yamaguchi’s 11-course spring menu, now priced at $225, or $335 when paired with wine. Not only am I pleasantly surprised, but I’m truly thrilled with the progression of flavors and textures that he and his team draw upon with luxurious ingredients layered with locally sourced details. The meal, against a background of Espacio, is abundant, tasty and joyful.
SEE ALSO: Inside a $5,000-a-night hotel, Mugen’s 8-course tasting menu is affordable luxury
We start on a fun note with an andagi filled with fresh cream, topped with osetra caviar and shavings of dried egg yolk. While this particular style of amuse-bouche isn’t uncommon, the nod to local soul food juxtaposed with the greatness of caviar makes me smile. This is what makes haute cuisine a little more endearing.
Our next dish is Dutch asparagus surrounded by dollops of black truffle sauce. The spring vegetable is very lightly cooked and tastes like it was just pulled out of the ground. The cook finishes the dish with a lush, lip-smacking sabayon, a creamy sauce made with egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine. Fast forward to the third course and I smile again. After a refreshing raw dish of aohata (yellow grouper) with spherified lemongrass eggs, shio shoyu and aromatics, our servers deliver plates of Parisian gnocchi in a puddle of thick tomato sauce. The gnocchi, little pillows of pan-fried choux pastry, are tasty, piping hot and laced with butter, each a small price. The awesome Sweet Land Farms Tomme balances so well with the sweet acidity of the sauce. I’ve been craving this dish since the moment I left Mugen; it inspired me to try making my own at home.
SEE ALSO: Find goat milk ice cream, caramel and cheese at the Sweet Land Farm store in Waialua
The fish dish includes amadai prepared with its scales pushed against the grain. Hot oil is poured over the fillet until it is opaque and the scales are fried, resulting in delicately cooked white flesh covered with a layer of crispy skin. But that’s not even the best part: underneath is a tiny bundle of turbot-stuffed cabbage, fish steamed in a green cabbage leaf, moist and rich with the taste of the sea. Dip each bite into the velvety parsnip puree and the deeply satisfying chamomile dashi reminds me of a soup my friend’s grandmother made and with a generous helping of fish too. Crispy, juicy balls of nashi pear and cooked cabbage balance the textures with a surprising touch of sweetness – an unexpected pop art deco moment on a few levels, including the plate, whose color mimics the pink skin of the amadai ( I should note that Yamaguchi works with artisans in Japan to source and develop the tableware that inspires him).
The A5 Miyazaki wagyu prep is as solid as last time. This season, it’s topped off with tiny puddles of steamed chawanmushi custard and veal jus. The meat melts in your mouth with a wonderful caramelized exterior. The kakiage panisse is steamy and flavorful with golden edges, while the silky mashed carrots offer a light sweetness.
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One of my favorite dishes of the evening is the cheese course because if it were up to me, every meal would have one. Tonight, pastry chef Jamon Harper is preparing Laura Chenel Californian goat cheese sandwiched between two shortbread biscuits with Herbes de Provence. Fine and delicate, the combination is succulent. The first of Harper’s two desserts is a coffee bean-shaped cake made with double cream sitting on a graham cracker base lightly sprayed with Kealakekua 70% dark chocolate from Mānoa Chocolate. It is light and rich at the same time with a restrained sweetness. His second dessert draws our eyes to the pass as he puts the finishing touches on a whimsical plate.
Matcha white chocolate is painted on the plate in a floral arrangement mimicking a sakura branch, with salted cherry blossoms stuck on with dollops of raspberry purée. Spring! A light and tangy blood orange mousse cake is balanced with sweet candied fruit. Bold flavors and well-calculated use of salt and unique textures are on point.
A complete game-by-game of this meal would reveal all the surprises Yamaguchi has in its spring story. Suffice it to say, the harmony between Yamaguchi, Harper, Sous Chef Regis Wong and the rest of the team is palpable. I am comfortably full and enjoy the effortless pace that gave me time to savor each dish. The combination of globally and locally sourced ingredients makes for a fun and flavorful dinner that I would happily splurge on for a special occasion. In fact, my birthday is coming up. You’ll probably catch me celebrating in Mugen.