Overcoming some early Stage fright
Friday - January 30, 2009
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When Stage Restaurant opened inside the Honolulu Design Center, it was with as much fanfare and excitement as the opening of a Broadway show. Guests clamored for invitations to the opening event and crammed themselves into the dark, moody restaurant for a first glimpse at the designer chairs and couture food. It’s not that there was anything special about the idea of a restaurant within a retail outlet (Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room and Mariposa had already shown what could be done), but a furniture store? Foodies flocked, the curious waited in line for lunch, and within a few weeks of opening night, Honolulu residents cast their vote.
Expensive and ... OK.
That’s one of the hardest images to shed if you’re a new restaurant looking for an adoring audience that will return for encore performances. But as reports of $75-plus lunches for two (without wine) and highly priced dinners spread, there was not much anyone could do to stop the press.
Fast forward a couple of years and we find a restaurant in a very different place. Still on the second floor next to Amuse wine bar, Stage is beginning to create a buzz again. Executive chef Ron De Guzman is at the helm of a kitchen crew that’s been at Stage since day one. He’s a Kapiolani Community College graduate and an Alan Wong alum, and little by little, one palate at a time, De Guzman is convincing diners that Stage is worth a second try.
“It was a little intimidating in the beginning,” he says of the March 2007 opening. “It wasn’t easy to live up to all the hype. Today I just cook the kind of food I like to eat, and it seems to be working. People in Hawaii like familiar flavors, I think ... something they can recognize.”
The lunch menu - there’s a three-course $25 daily deal that’s well worth trying - features a menu that changes each day, depending on what’s fresh. And while it might be nonthreatening and recognizable, it’s anything but boring. There’s a pan-seared bubu arare-crusted king salmon served over orzo, for example, (De Guzman’s take on fish and rice), and a certified Angus beef burger that’s taken to a seriously finedining level with house-spiced bacon, a homemade potato bun, excellent french fries and two types of cheese. Homemade meatloaf, New York steak sandwiches and Caesar salad are all dishes that are familiar, but De Guzman displays the talent to nudge them up a notch.
“I think it’s just about making the menu more approachable,” he says quietly.“I hope that we’re putting out food that people love.”
De Guzman is one of those chefs who’d work day and night to put a smile on a guest’s face. He’s not particularly interested in accolades, or even in putting his signature on the menu. He sees a bigger picture.
“We’re still a work in progress,” he says, “but already we’ve created a lot of regular customers at lunchtime who’ve noticed how much the menu has changed.”
And if the menu is impressive, the wine list is stunning. Charly Yoshida, who for years was the comforting first face you saw at Alan Wong’s, was coaxed out of “retirement"to come to Stage, and he brought his love of wines with him.
“Our wine list is really incredible,” says the immensely likeable Yoshida. “Our attitude here is to share it, not store it, so we have 400 wines that are so reasonably priced. They start at $15 and go right up to $4,000.“Yoshida agrees that, with the wine and now the food, Stage is ready for its encore. “Ron has a real talent,“he says,“He gets it.”
It’s true that De Guzman has a nice touch both in the kitchen and on the plate. A chopped salad becomes a thing of beauty when ingredients like corn, black beans, seared ahi, green beans, baby tomatoes, avocado, eggs, croutons and sweet potatoes are lined up perfectly on a plate. His lobster risotto, served with a chili-saffron broth of Manila clams and New Caledonia shrimp, is a beautifully balanced dish both on the palate and on the plate. “We’re using Kona lobster and as many local ingredients as we can,“he says. “We have the best produce and the best fish in Hawaii. We’re doing as much as we can to use it all.”
But how hard is it to go back to a restaurant you already decided you didn’t like?
Actually, it’s a lot of fun. I went back a couple of months ago for the first time and was impressed with the friendly service and the slimmed-down, reasonably priced menu.
“We did create an odd vibe in the beginning,” admits De
Guzman. “A restaurant in a furniture store with designer chairs and tables - and a menu that was on the high side. But I think we’ve managed to turn that around.”
I think so, too.
And, as my 5-year-old-son Max would say, “Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? “
Honolulu Design Center
1250 Kapiolani Blvd.
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