Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
When Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar opened in Waterfront Plaza in 2004, Chef Keith Endo was already working with the DK Restaurants group. He had been a sushi chef at Sansei Kapalua for about five years. And, although he had no previous experience with Italian cuisine, he had learned the art of pasta making from the famed Alioto family in San Francisco, which turned out to be a plus for Vino. On subsequent trips to Italy, Endo refined his Italian cuisine techniques, which inspired him to create items for Vino’s changing menu.
In Vino’s early days, diners rarely got a glimpse of Chef Endo. He would take occasional peeks of the dining area and then retreat back into the kitchen. These days, however, Chef Endo can be seen strolling through the dining area on a regular basis.
A more intimate interaction is now part of Vino’s latest food event — “underground dinners.” Chef Endo was inspired by the story of a husband/wife team in Chicago who created “underground” pop-up dinners in their basement. Eventually, they generated enough revenue to open their own “legal” restaurant, which garnered two Michelin stars. Their story ended abruptly with the shuttering of their restaurant.
Chef Endo’s Vino pop-up dinners are just starting.
What’s a Pop-Up Dinner?
Pop-Up dinners started with chefs creating meals outside of the traditional restaurant setting. The dinners usually involve young chefs who are still raising capital to open their own restaurant. The young chefs host their pop-up dinners on their days off from their regular jobs, either “borrowing” space from another restaurant or illegally hosting dinners at private residences. Most states, like Hawai‘i, require Department of Health-approved food-prepping facilities, which most private homes do not have.
Established chefs will sometimes host a pop-up dinner to explore a different dining theme from their usual restaurant-themed meals.
For example, the immensely popular The Pig and the Lady (and Piggy Smalls, as well) started as a pop-up eight years ago, cooking out of the original Hank’s Haute Dogs kitchen. They later expanded into two (and soon-to-be three) brick and mortar locations.
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi hosted multiple pop-ups at the former TASTE in Kaka‘ako. Even yours truly hosted a pop-up dinner with my cooking buddy, Monsieur Kellett, for 35 diners at the original EAT Honolulu restaurant in the Gentry Design Center, now known as Nā Lama Kukui.
Chef Endo’s held his first dinner in late June in the Vino space that regulars call “The Cave,” where he is trying to limit seating to 10 to 12 diners. By the time I read about his “underground dinners” back in May, the inaugural dinner was already sold out. We were fortunate to secure seats to the second dinner, which was held in mid-July. These dinners are held every three to four weeks and on Sunday evenings only. Endo will take a break during the holidays and resume his underground dinners in March of next year. The menu is different for every dinner. Future themes will include the food of Spain along with a menu that is 100 percent locally sourced.
The dinners are a pure expression of Chef Endo’s cooking. As a result, resident master sommelier Chuck Furuya isn’t recommending any wine pairings with the meals. A perfect wine pairing would require that the chef change certain ingredients, and Furuya wants Chef Endo’s cuisine to be the highlight.
Chef Endo wanted to create a meal based on his local favorites, but kicked up several notches in both preparation and ingredients. The dining table faced the plating table so diners could watch the final plating by Chef Endo, Sous Chef Jennifer Cho and Pastry Chef Cherie Pascua. Chef Endo also explained the inspiration for and preparation of each dish.
steamed Kona Maine lobster shumai
with lobster consommé, leeks and truffle oil
fennel-crusted bigeye tuna, pickled Maui onions,
charred grape tomato and ogo
“Soup and Sandwich”
“soup” ~ pork belly tonkotsu ramen, menma, pickled red daikon,
ginger scallion pesto and Hakata noodles
“sandwich” ~ Kurobuta pork slider stuffed with braised short rib
and topped with truffled brie
“Oodles of Noodles”
braised oxtail tortelloni, bone marrow brodo,
house-made lemon ricotta cheese and gremolata
“Down Like Chinatown”
slow-roasted five-spice-crusted Hudson Valley duck,
Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi, grilled baby bok choi.
Cinnamon-scented kabocha puree and duck cracklings
yuzu granite, raw Kona abalone and caviar
“Holy Cow” aka Hamburger Steak
Tajima Wagyu menchi katsu, Cipollini onions, Ali‘i mushrooms,
Artichoke-stuffed conchiglie and kabayaki demi-glace
“Last But Not Least”
strawberry-guava (waiwi) shortcake,
roasted local guava and liliko‘i mousse
The shumai was a blend of ground pork and bamboo shoots in a rich broth of lobster consommé and lobster meat. The poke looked like the average local poke, but Chef Endo’s was accented with a hit of fennel, which gave it that slightly sweet, licorice flavor that perked up the fresh tuna.
The pork slider was the size of a small burger with multiple hits of truffles, and the pork belly was so tender it melted like butter on the palate.
I love oxtail, so the bone marrow broth was the hit of the noodle dish. I’m also a big fan of roasted duck, but I agree with Chef Endo that the highlight of the dish was the cinnamon-scented kabocha puree and duck cracklings.
Chef Endo’s final savory course was his take on a hamburger steak plate lunch, although I’m pretty sure no drive-in uses A5 wagyu beef. And, the artichoke-stuffed pasta shells were a far cry from the usual mac salad on a plate lunch.
We were totally stuffed by the time we reached the dessert course, so several diners asked for one dessert to be boxed and instead shared the huge serving of strawberry-guava shortcake. All this for just $70 per person.
So how can you secure a seat? Follow Chef Endo’s Instagram page @vinocheftable and make a reservation; at worst, you may get a seat for next March. If there’s a cancellation, you could possibly move up the list. But don’t call Vino for a table, as Chef Endo is handling reservations personally for his “underground dinners.”
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”