A one-of-a-kind dining experience in Waikiki

Dinner begins with a phone call from the chef. Vikram Garg, executive chef at Halekulani and creator of its exclusive dining experience, Table One, gets straight to the point.

“What do you like?” he asks, calling three days before our dining date. “Is there anything you won’t eat?”

He’s quick with questions and listens intently to answers. This pre-dinner interview serves to heighten anticipation not only about the menu, but also the man behind it.

Table One is many things for guests: a culinary adventure, an exercise in sustainable eating and a sensual, interactive experience. But for the chef, Table One is about something else entirely: It’s about changing what you thought you knew about food.

“With certain foods, there is a view that you already have, an expectation level of the dish,” Garg says. “What we want to do is to reposition the picture that your brain is already sending you when you think of sashimi, for example, or filet mignon.”

By beginning his menu with a strong idea of guests’ likes and dislikes, he can then begin to build a picture of what dinner will be. Garg usually starts at the Kapiolani Community College farmers market, centering his recipes around one or two ingredients for each dish.

“I think of seasonality and local ingredients first,” he says. “If I can’t find what I need locally, then I’ll go elsewhere.”

It’s easy to relax into the mood of Table One. Much thought has gone into the simple table setting that’s isolated from the main Orchids dining room. An uncovered circular koa wood table, handcrafted to fit the dining space, sits beneath an atrium where the last light of day illuminates the character and deep patterns of the wood. There’s an organic feel to the space, formerly the spot where Sunday brunch was served. Garg noticed the space years ago when he first came to Halekulani as a guest chef and says he was always intrigued by it.

“At first I wanted to create an open kitchen here,” he says. “But I realized that wasn’t really practical.”

Instead, he’s created a sensual space where he can showcase his food. Sea green place mats look like tiny river pebbles, and silver-rimmed plates mimic oyster shells. In the understated elegance one expects from Halekulani, Table One sets its own stage.

When our party of four arrives for dinner, there’s time to sip champagne and look for the first time at the menu chef has created. Waiters attend but don’t fuss, and they seem as genuinely interested in what dishes will come out as we are.

“I haven’t seen the same thing twice,” our waiter told us. “The food is amazing.”

Garg starts cooking at about 5:30 p.m., creating different dishes each night.

“It’s not about re-creating the same dish over and over again,” Garg says. “It’s about creating a custom-made menu just for one night.” Because of that, and because of Garg’s intent to give each guest a completely different dining experience, the food at Table One offers something unique to each diner.

Our dinner starts with a charming amuse bouche of “Cornflakes and Milk” (tiny Maui sweet potato chips nestled in a teacup-sized bowl, served with spicy corn “milk” bisque).

Next, we’re served Ahi and Kona Kampachi Carpaccio. After reading the menu, we seasoned gourmands are expecting the usual duo or trio of sashimi, but what comes to the table is a rainbow platter of thinly sliced ahi, kampachi and onaga. Scattered on top are fresh herbs, edible flowers and kalamansi. The three near-translucent strips are dusted with Hawaiian sea salt and a single thin strip of fried Okinawan sweet potato.

The dish is paired with an Alsatian wine – Domaine Ostertag “Old Vines” Sylvaner 2006 – which appears pale yellow in the glass and offers a faintly musty aroma.

After the first bite, it’s obvious that each of us is in our own culinary zone. “Oh, the salt is incredible,” someone says. “Mine’s so citrusy,” says someone else. For me, there’s the taste of ogo and sea asparagus and the sweetness of corn sprouts with sea salt and grapefruit.

That’s exactly the kind of culinary confusion Garg wants at the table. “People eat differently,” he says, “We all start at a different place. It’s how you eat the dish that makes a difference. Not everybody eats from left to right. And on this dish, I asked different farmers to send me herbs and greens and garnishes, and I just spread them on top. The crunch is from the Hawaiian sea salt; the citrus from the kalamansi, which is in season.”

What makes the course so delightful is its evolution. There’s a burst of lime with one bite, a taste of the ocean with another, and the wine, with its earthy, mineral finish, is perfect.

For the third course, we’re expecting Cumin Scallops, and we’re already sure not to expect anything ordinary. As we eat, it becomes clear that this is the best scallop dish any of us has ever had. One person in our party tastes cumin immediately; another comments on the perfectly sweet, juicy scallop. I love the balance of salt and sweetness and texture from a tiny bed of cabbage.

“For me,” says Garg, when he comes out to the table later to talk, “that dish was all about the Ka’u orange sauce. I spent all day thinking about the orange juice, because right now the oranges are in season and they’re so perfect. I wanted to use the cumin – it just came in from the Big Island – and I used a little local pork, sautéed the scallop and then reduced the orange with some Hawaiian chili pepper.”

I asked how many times he’d made this, the world’s greatest scallop dish, and he replied, “I made it this evening for the first time. I think I started it at 6:30, when you sat down to dinner.”

Our culinary journey continues through Waianae for braised pork with seared moi and a burnt butter juice over red cabbage, to a sublime butter-poached Kea-hole lobster with fenugreek and smoked chili oil, and onto the Big Island for tenderloin of beef, Waialua asparagus and Hamakua mushrooms.

Dessert deserves an entire feature, highlighted by an addictive macadamia nut toffee, a North Shore bitter chocolate sorbet, and handmade chocolates that required a trip to Paris to perfect their fillings.

But no matter how much guests are wowed by Table One, I’m betting it excites Chef Garg even more. And that’s what makes this Honolulu’s most exciting dining experience.

“I love the challenge of it,” says the chef who also is responsible for the 100 chefs who take care of La Mer, Orchids and House Without A Key each night.

“For me, food is all about love,” he says. “It comes from inside. And because of that, a lot of times when I think I can feel what the guests are thinking, I move away from the menu, even at the last minute, and create something that I hope they enjoy and remember forever.”

One table, one chef, one nightly seating, one menu and one incredible dining experience.

A five-course dinner at Table One starts at $95, while a seven-course dinner is initially priced at $125. Wine pairings will amend dinner prices as well.

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