We recently paid a visit to the new Honolulu Design Center to sample both the Design Center’s
Amuse Wine Bar and Stage Restaurant. The Honolulu Design Center is the creation of Thomas
Sorensen who brought Scan Design then INspiration Furniture to Hawaii. He always wanted to
merge lifestyle, food, wine and arts into one location and succeeded with the recently
completed Honolulu Design Center. Along with the wine bar and restaurant, the Design Center
also houses the Cupola Theatre for taped and live performances. We actually intended on simply
sampling wine but eventually moved next door to the restaurant for a five course meal.

For starters, you actually enter through the furniture showroom to get to both the wine bar
and the restaurant. The Amuse Wine Bar is a simply decorated space with long elevated tables
meant to seat parties of four. The décor here is pure wine from their high end refrigerated servers
to the Italian designed Enomatic automated wine servers to the wine cellar visible through thick
plate glass.
The concept is simple, give your credit card to your server then receive a VIP wine card that you
use to select whatever wine you decide to sample. You simply insert the VIP wine card into the
slot, place your glass under the spigot of your selected wine then press the button. It
automatically dispenses a one ounce serving of wine. If you want a full glass, simply press the
same button four more times. The prices per ounce are listed just above the serving button.
Just keep in mind that this type of technology doesn’t come cheap. Wines start at about $1.50
an ounce all the way up to $20.49 an ounce (that’s $102.50 per glass). Amuse does offer many
selections that are very difficult if not impossible to find at retail. And $20.49 is still cheaper
than paying $200 for a whole bottle. We sampled:

Martinelli Chardonnay, Brewer Clifton Pinot Noir, Faust Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonaccorsi Pinot
Noir, Wes Mar Pinot Noir, Altagracia Meritage, Revana Cabernet Sauvignon and a Brunello di
Montalcino along with a triple assortment cheese platter.

After an hour, we migrated into the Stage Restaurant. The décor here was pure avant garde.
Funky lamps, art noveau posters (I was facing a poster of the backside of a nude woman in some
acrobatic pose) and artsy tables and chairs. Our server stated that Chef Jon Matsubara recently
implemented a couple of tasting menus along with his ala carte menu. Since real Wagyu beef –
not Wagyu hybrid from Snake River or Australia – was featured on the pricier tasting course, we
opted for the Roots tasting menu ($95 or $135 with wine pairings).

Dinner started with an amuse bouche of minced toro on roasted Hamakua mushrooms served
with a lilikoi or passion fruit shooter. An unexpected combination though it did work. The
sharp acidic touch of lilikoi and a hefty dose of chili pepper in the shooter help cut through the
fattiness of the toro.
Next up was the Kona Amberjack Hawaiian Yellowfin with watermelon radish, avocado, Molokai
black salt with ginger lemongrass nage and wonton crisp. This was paired with a Mehana
Hawaiian Lager. Once again, the ginger and lemongrass sauce help cut through the rich fatty
fish with the spicy radish balancing the minced avocado. I would venture to say Chef Matsubara’
s Yellowfin outclassed Nobu’s famous sashimi salad.
We then proceeded to indulge in the Keahole Lobster Chawan Mushi with Kubota manju sake
and green garlic emulsion that was paired with Kubota Manju Sake. The garlic foam added a
pleasant garlic fragrance to the egg custard. There actually were three pieces of lobster in the
small demitasse. Since sake was in the custard, that same sake was a perfect partner to the dish.
The first entrée was Lup Cheong crusted Mahimahi with Russian King Crab, porkhash, water
chestnut and black truffle sauce served with a Lavantureux Chablis. Thin slices of rendered lup
cheong were arranged over the mahimahi so it wasn’t really crusted per se. Though there were
three slices of black truffle on the King crab, I don’t think it really played a big flavor role (nor
did the King crab).
An Intermezzo of Ginger and Pineapple sorbet with chili pepper was served as a palate cleanser.
A nice interplay of sweet and sour with heat on the back end to refresh the palate.
The star of dinner was the Loco Foie Gras Moco with Wagyu 5A grade beef, foie gras, quail egg
and sauce Bordelaise served with a Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon. For those unfamiliar
with Hawaii’s plate lunch cuisine, Loco Moco was created in Hilo many years ago and consists of
a hamburger patty on top of rice smothered in brown gravy and topped with a sunnyside egg.
Chef Matsubara’s creation featured a slice of seared foie gras placed atop a 2-3 ounce portion of
seared Wagyu beef with a sunnyside quail egg balanced on top. I’m not sure what was richer, the
foie gras or the beef… seriously. The beef was almost like eating beef flavored foie gras. Both
actually overpowered the Chateau Montelena. The rice was served on the side as a kabayaki sauce
glazed mini musubi.
We finished the evening with Coconut Ice and Pearls – Coconut tapioca, lilikoi shave ice and
coconut sorbet served with a Mondavi Moscato d’Oro. Luckily, dessert was refreshing with the
almost frozen mixed berries and lilikoi sauce. After the Loco Moco, I don’t think I could have
finished any other dessert.

But was it worth the price?

In Honolulu and in many other cities, tasting menus usually are a little pricey. You do leave
your wallet a little lighter for those multi-course meals, especially if they feature prime
ingredients. However Chef Matsubara’s course selections was better than other tasting menus
that I’ve tried in the same price range. It also incorporated taste sensations that I haven’t tried
at other restaurants (lilikoi shooters, chili pepper sorbet palate cleanser) along with luxuriant
ingredients (truffle, Wagyu beef). The Amberjack course as well as the Chawan Mushi were also
memorable, enough so that the Mrs and I plan to make a return visit someday. So for us, I guess
it was worth the price.
Or return to experience one of the Design Center’s dinner and jazz or dinner and a movie
combinations. Or return just to sneak a 1 ounce tasting of that $20.49 Batard Montrachet…
Wining & Dining at the Honolulu Design Center