Over the past decade, brand-name chefs who have gone global with their food, conquering new cities like culinary Alexanders, have been scrutinized—is it really possible to run an empire and retain the quality and innovation that made the name in the first place? Alain Ducasse, Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsay, and, closer to home, Roy Yamaguchi, are some of the kitchen stars who have turned into meteor showers. One chef who has proliferated without diluting his brand (too much) is New York-based Jean-Georges Vongerichten. While he plants his flag from Shanghai to Martinique, Vongerichten’s flagship Jean Georges still has its three Michelin stars and remains in New York’s top tier of dining, along with spots like Le Bernardin and Per Se.
At the same time, Vongerichten moves with the times, branching out with cuisines (Matsugen) and style (Perry St.). It’s telling that every one of his seven restaurants is a New York Magazine critic’s pick, and in the New York Times Jean Georges, Jo Jo, and Perry St. are Top Picks, while Matsugen has three stars. And when his pioneering dining-as-theater fusion spot Vong (back in the 90s, it was the first place I had ever eaten where dishes came with instructions on how to eat them) closed after 17 years, a city mourned. (Vongerichten says the closure was a lease matter, and plans to reopen the restaurant in a new location.)
Now thanks to his partnering with Starwood about four years ago, Hawai‘i residents have a chance to taste Vongerichten’s food at the dramatically (and successfully) overhauled St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kaua‘i. Kaua‘i Grill’s name may be prosaic, but the food isn’t. If you live on O‘ahu, it’s time to think about a weekend getaway to the Garden Isle.
Vongerichten flew in for the resort’s Epicurean Weekend last month (after visiting his family in Alsace), and he was in the kitchen for a gala dinner on Nov. 20. While the menu is much more casual than, say, Jean Georges—as a hotel restaurant Kaua’i Grill has to have that balance between tourist crowd pleaser and gourmand wower—it still shows off Vongerichten’s mastery.
You’re greeted by blood-red hibiscus suspended in a glass door and enter a coco-and-ruby sleek, clubby room of zebra woods and leather booths—Don Draper would be right at home. It’s the handiwork of designer Rhonda Rasmussen of the Honolulu-based architecture firm WATG, which handled the hotel’s multimillion-dollar extreme makeover, turning the resort from faux-Euro statuary cemetary to a place that has a sense of Hawai‘i and is filled with contemporary works by local artists such as Aaron Padilla and Gaye Chan. And to top it all off, the room has a sweeping pre-contact view of Hanalei Bay.
Vongerichten has a database of 6,000 recipes, from which he chooses dishes for his outposts, tweaking them to fit the local ingredients. For example, at Lagoon, his restaurant at the St. Regis Bora Bora, the foie gras appetizer sees the liver caramelized and served with niçoise olives and passionfruit, while here it is roasted and accented with mango and ginger. Vongerichten, who had never been to Hawai‘i before that weekend, relied on chef de cuisine and local boy Colin Hazama (he was opening chef for RumFire at the Waikiki Sheraton) for local-ingredient suggestions.
The five-course menu started with…tuna tartare? Really? That tired old dish? But there was nothing boring about the preparation. You can almost taste it before you take a bite of the layered circles of ‘ahi and avocado topped by a bloom of radish slices—all of Vongerichten’s food is intensely fragrant. The vinegary ginger dressing caresses the nose. Then the first bite of fish reveals a pleasingly dense texture—Vongerichten finely chops the impeccably fresh tuna and seasons it with olive oil, shallots and chilies, shaping it into a disk of tartare unlike any I’ve had here. No crumbling chunks of flesh in this bowl. (Yes, I need a new camera—sorry!)
While all the dishes resonated on the palate, Vongerichten carefully planned the arc of flavors—the pungency of the tartare is followed by the more restrained bacon-wrapped shrimp, giving palates a small break. The tightly wrapped paper-thin bacon is like a natural skin on the crustacean, and is brightened with the papaya “mustard” which is like a fruit tartare.
The dish that had everyone buzzing was moi crusted with nuts and seeds in a bath of “sweet and sour jus.” What sounds like bird food is black pepper, hazelnut, almond, sesame seeds, a bit of macadamia nut (it is Hawai‘i), ground to a powder. The fish is coated with buttermilk and a bit of flour and crusted with the mixture. Again, the scent of the jus hits the olfactory system hard, yet the flavor is cunningly subtle. How does he do that? The pleasantly gritty shell gives way to the soft, moist fish, its oiliness cut by the deceptively complex flavor of the jus—it’s just brown butter, shoyu, caramelized mushrooms, honey, lemon juice and sherry vinegar. Vongerichten is an acid master. (“Acidity for me is a key,” he says. “Most of the chefs don’t season properly. I learned that from my mother—there was salad with every meal, there was vinegar everywhere.”)
When the rack of lamb arrives, it smells like a proper English Sunday dinner, the scent of the meat and mint wafting. The tangy coat of mint and breadcrumbs make the tender lamb, accompanied by a mix of artichoke and long beans, the perfect simple meat dish. Then come little after hints of chili, turning a tradition into something new.
Perhaps what was most amazing about the dinner was it was basically a banquet—around 100 of each dish had to come out at the same time, and retained the Vongerichten quality. It’s a sign of a tight kitchen, and it remains to be seen if the young Hazama can continue the rigor. (I want to return to find out.)
Even if you’ve never heard of Vongerichten, you’ve likely tasted his culinary influence—he’s widely acknowledged as the inventor of the molten chocolate cake (back in 1987), which is now a staple in U.S. restaurants. And guess what was for dessert? While fitting as an introduction to the world of Vongerichten, it was a yawn compared to the delectable parfait of white chocolate mousse and mouth-puckering lemon sorbet topped with shards of meringue.
Diners included a who’s who of the Kaua‘i food scene (at the previous night’s cocktail reception was Peter Merriman, who had opened his new restaurant in Poipu the day before), travel industry professionals and press—and at the end of the evening they gave Vongerichten a standing ovation. He says he plans to return to Kaua‘i four times a year—check back with Eatizen Jane to find out when.
Coming up: Interviews with Vongerichten and Hazama.