Saying Goodbye (Again) to Vino
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Just as I was about to submit this June column, I received breaking news through social media that, due to the loosening of restrictions and gradual return of tourism, both Sansei and DK Steakhouse would reopen in their previous location of the Waikiki Marriott (for updates, see facebook.com/SanseiSushiWaikiki and facebook.com/dkSteakHouse). The post also stated that the day after this column hits the newsstands, sister restaurant Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar would be closing. However, classic Vino dishes will move to Sansei and DK Steakhouse.
When I started writing for The Hawai‘i Herald, I had highlighted the original closing of Vino back in 2015. So this news makes me think of the words of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra – “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar at Restaurant Row
Long after Black Orchid then World Café shuttered, popular Maui seafood restaurant Sansei moved into the corner unit at the original Restaurant Row. The side room which eventually opened as Vino (the name of another DK restaurant also in Kapalua) was previously used as overflow seating or storage for Sansei.
When Sansei found a new home in the Waikiki Marriott alongside sister restaurant DK Steakhouse, owner “DK” Kodama transformed the space into Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas (along with chef Hiroshi Fukui) and used the original Sansei storage space as the new Vino.
During our initial visit to Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas in the early 2000s, we met Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya who was the 10th American to pass the rigorous master sommelier exam. I remember ordering a bottle of demi-sec (off-dry) Domaine Huet Vouvray and when Furuya uncorked the bottle, we struck up a long conversation about wine. He probably didn’t have a lot of diners who ordered a Chenin Blanc based wine, since this was usually relegated to box wines in the US but was perfect with the Asian fusion cuisine at Hiroshi. Since that fateful evening in 2003, we made countless visits to the Honolulu Vino — sometimes three times in one month — both for date nights or with the countless regulars we befriended.
Furuya also hosted special events regularly at Vino to feature visiting winemakers or themed pre-set dinner menus which included special wine pairings with each course. While Vino was still at its Restaurant Row location, a public sighting of the famously reclusive Chef Keith Endo was as common as seeing the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot. You might get to see him peering through the round windows of the service double doors just to see how busy the dining area was; if he saw you looking at him, he’d quickly retreat to the inner sanctum of the kitchen. Back then, Chef Endo didn’t even describe any of the specials he created and left the task to the servers or Furuya.
The main reason we returned time and time again is because the Vino staff became like our family. Chuck Furuya was the offbeat uncle who always had to tell you a new joke; he was the resident punster. General Manager Ann Taketa shared our love for chocolate so we always shared new chocolate bars at each visit. Mixologist Brent Kawano knew that I always ended the evening with a Negroni – shaken not stirred (like James Bond) and served with a fine ice line of a recently shaken cocktail. And we shared tips on how to create the perfect libation.
English poet William S. Gilbert stated that “It isn’t so much what’s on the table that matters, as what’s on the chairs” – a mantra we still live by; our frequent trips to Vino was because It isn’t so much what dish comes out of the kitchen or what wine is in the glass but who serves or pours it.
Then in 2015, Vino announced that they wouldn’t be renewing their lease with Waterfront Plaza. The kitchen needed major upgrades that weren’t worth investing in, and so management quickly started looking for a new location. We immediately booked a table for the last evening. And even though Vino’s doors closed once service was complete, it almost was a celebratory atmosphere with “DK” Kodama thanking regular patrons. There was even a cake with a caricature of Chuck Furuya seated on his sand-chair smoking his usual cigar.
The cigar was part of a ritual at the conclusion of service every evening, while the wait staff divided tips and the kitchen was cleaned. Furuya would take his sand-chair outside and have his evening cigar on the sidewalk fronting South Street. Of course, after second-guessing where Vino would re-emerge for at least a month, they announced it would re-open just across the breezeway at Waterfront Plaza in another five months.
The New Location
Once Vino re-emerged five months later in a spot that was literally about 50 feet away, the restauranteur also revamped the menu. During his downtime, Chef Endo took a trip to Italy to gather new ideas for future dishes. Vino also purchased new kitchen equipment including a pizza oven and its chefs also started baking their own bread.
The new space also had a main dining area and a secluded smaller seating area which we dubbed “The Cave.” We requested “The Cave” when there were at least six of us. Additionally there are two private rooms that could be booked on their own or used as overflow seating.
Furuya also allowed us to bring in our own wine and (even if we insisted) never charged us any corkage fees; he simply asked that we take care of the wait staff, so we always left a 20+% tip plus $10 per bottle opened and always left the remainder of the wine for the staff to enjoy. I often uncorked one of my bottles and sampled a half glass, placed the cork back in the neck and gave the bottle to GM Ann “for you and the staff once you close.”
Because I always closed our evenings with a Negroni, I had a custom-etched bottle made for “Ryan’s Negroni” with the pour levels of Campari marked for gin, white and red vermouth and left it with Kawano the mixologist. Vino even offered “Ryan’s Negroni” as the special cocktail of the evening and with each subsequent visit, noticed that the fill level was dropping so other diners were also ordering the “my” Negroni.
During the second iteration of Vino, Chef Endo did a 180 and started to walk the dining room with Furuya to explain his rationale for creating a special. He also continued his trips to Italy and Spain and those new cooking ideas manifested as the Vino Underground pop-up dinners where Furuya let the chef create his own themed dinners whether Italian, Spanish, local foods or anything in between. The once reserved chef was now as gregarious as they come even doing final preparations for each dish right in front of his dining audience. We also hosted our 25th anniversary party in the larger private dining room in late 2019.
At this time, we also noticed that Vino seemed to develop a new following – so much so that we always had to make reservations even for a two-top table. At the old location, we could just walk in without reservations and promptly be seated. However, though reservations were now a necessity at the new location, Ms. S and I always scanned the crowded dining area and came to believe that Vino would continue until we were too old and decrepit to go out on date nights anymore.
Once the pandemic started, owner “DK” Kodama consolidated Sansei and DK Steakhouse operations at Vino first just offering take-out then eventually restoring in-house dining once the shutdown was lifted. Since it became a worldwide pandemic, we’ve dined in-house at Vino on only two occasions. The first was just before O‘ahu started the mandatory shutdown at one of the last Vino Underground diners.
The second was in July between the two COVID-19 peaks O‘ahu experienced;this in-house dining visit was mainly to retrieve an empty double-magnum champagne bottle we had all guests and servers sign at our 25th anniversary party along with my Negroni bottle. Right after the first shutdown, Chuck Furuya informed staff that he was retiring at which point, most of the regular servers were furloughed.
Chef Endo left Vino in August and moved to Zia’s European Caffe in Käne‘ohe. Then late last year, mixologist Kawano moved to The Row, Kaka‘ako (formerly The Row Bar by Tamura’s) purchasing the business after The Row Bar permanently closed. And just recently, General Manager Ann Taketa decided to retire once Vino closes on June 5, as DK Restaurant probably wouldn’t have had a position for her. Unlike the situation of the first closing, which we assumed was temporary, we haven’t booked our final table on June 5 as it will probably seem like a funeral. Ms. S and I likely will spend a quiet evening at home on the 5th, uncork a bottle of champagne, remember the good times and the friends we made at Vino and give a final toast to that place where everyone knew our name.
Note: Chuck Furuya currently offers wine podcasts with his son Kale and Zoom sessions with various winemakers. See chuckfuruyauncorked.com, listennotes.com/podcasts/chuck-furuya-uncorked-kale-furuya-Hy2URGjC1bx/ or instagram.com/chuckfuruya for more info.
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” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).