Michel’s: Where Food Becomes Art

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 13, 2008
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Kobe carpacchio with babaganoosh and hummus
Kobe carpacchio with babaganoosh and hummus

There comes a point where food is more than just nutrition. Thankfully, for most of us in Hawaii and in America we’re fortunate that food is abundant, so that point comes fairly early and we have the luxury of thinking as much about taste and texture, color and presentation, as we do about food as essential human fuel.

And on a recent evening at Michel’s at the Colony Surf, I was reminded that there also comes a point where food becomes art, and where a great meal flows like a great symphony, evoking responses both visceral and emotional.

Where is that point?

For me, the realization came mid-way through the meal with the first taste of mahimahi, normally the most modest of fish, looking up as it does to ahi, opakapaka and onaga, among others. As waiter Frank Straka explained, Chef Eberhard Kintscher begins by drying Porcini mushrooms, grinding them to a fine powder, then dusting the mahi and searing it. The Porcini powder “holds in all the moisture,” he explained. Indeed, it does. Served with prosciutto risotto and truffle vinaigrette over organic greens, this is one of the great fish dishes I’ve experienced anywhere. It’s pure art, each element playing like a different instrument in the orchestra, neither overpowering nor being overwhelmed.

The grand symphony composed by Chef Hardy, as he’s popularly known, began with a prelude of complimentary lavosh and a whipped Mediterranean butter of kalamata olive, sun-dried tomato and garlic, as we relaxed with a glass of 2006 Monjardin El Cerezo unoaked Chardonnay from Spain, dry but with nice fruit, while taking in the beach-side view and the changing palette of sunset colors in the Waikiki sky. Even if the food were not so exceptional, the scenery and airy ambiance help explain why Michel’s has been so popular since 1962.

Porcini-dusted mahimahi and prosciutto risotto
Porcini-dusted mahimahi and prosciutto risotto

The Chef’s Exquisite Soup of the Evening was a demitasse of split-pea soup with sherry. So creamy, with tiny, lightly crispy croutons the perfect textural complement.

This we followed with Kobe Beef Carpacchio ($20), thin-sliced raw beef served with a pesto drizzle, sweet red pepper goat cheese aioli, and scoops of hummus and babaganoosh (mashed seasoned eggplant) Frank paired an ‘05 Ellers Estate Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, very berry with a hint of something herbal (rosemary?).

Whether you’re an oenophile or a vino newbie, Michel’s offers a terrific “half-glass” service - a full glass can be divided into two halves of different wines, for comparing or pairing. Frank, a veteran restaurateur and one of the best servers I’ve seen, did a masterful job of pairing wines and dishes all evening.

The Ellers Cab also went very well with Blackened Ahi ($18), the tuna a beautiful deep red hue, served with a light wasabi cream sauce, a cabernet sauce and a salsa of mango and tomato over crispy Maui onions. So much for white wine with fish.

From there we segued to main courses, beginning with Kona Bay Abalone ($38), served in the shell over spaghetti squash, Hamakua oyster mushrooms and spinach in a creamy French sauce, the abalone almost melting in the mouth. The pairing here was an ‘07 New Huber Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough Valley, with a nose of citrus and pear.

Bread pudding with Bing cherries
Bread pudding with Bing cherries

Then came the aforementioned Porcini-dusted Mahimahi ($42), paired with ‘06 Colombelle, a dry, acidic, even earthy French white in the Sauvignon Blanc style - to match the earthiness of the Porcini flavor, Frank explained. Perfect.

Then came the intermezzo, a delightful calamansi sorbet.

Palates cleansed, we moved to the grand crescendo, Beef Wellington ($48), rare beef tenderloin wrapped in foie gras mousse and puff pastry, served with two sauces, Cassis and Truffle Madeira, paired with B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s North Coast, offering a nose full of cherries. This is a dish, and a pairing, to live (not die) for.

I, and my tummy, would have been happy to end it there, but Maestro Hardy’s symphony continued with a sweet, two-part diminuendo - Bread Pudding with Bing cherries marinated in kirsch, with brioche and macadamia ice cream (a new menu item), and Chocolate Decadence ($8), chocolate cake with a melty center served with berries and mac nut ice cream, and paired with a late-harvest Banyols.

The service at Michel’s, by the way, may be the best in Honolulu, not in a hovering way, but quick and unobtrusive, never interrupting conversation.

Michel’s is also one of the few places left that does extensive tableside preparation, including Caesar Salad, Lobster Bisque (a Michel’s favorite for more than 40 years), Steak Diane and Cherries Jubilee. What is it about flaming cognac that is so entertaining?

With waves washing gently on the sandy shore, tasteful guitar music playing softly (Grammy winner Jeff Peterson is a regular), and a crescent moon now glittering the dark sea, we savored the final tastes, our spirits lifted.

Which is what great art does. Michel’s at the Colony Surf, 2895 Kalakaua Ave., 923-6552


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