After almost a decade, Stage Restaurant continues to impress.
For a restaurant that’s been part of Honolulu’s dining-scape for nearly 10 years, Stage remarkably still feels like a brand-new space. Guests who frequent the chic eatery located within Honolulu Design Center as well as those venturing there for the first time are given a contemporary performance expressed through dramatic roles in both the Asian-American menu and a stunning set, and the resulting experience is certainly worthy of a round of applause.
Even so, in many ways Stage Restaurant remains somewhat of a hidden gem—a sparkling sapphire at that. For one, it’s tucked away on the second floor of the design center and condo complex, where guests must journey past a myriad of high-end home finds and through its sister venue, Amuse Wine Bar, before they even reach the dining room. But in a broader sense, although the modern-fusion eatery was an influential precursor to many of the trendiest restaurants in Honolulu today, it isn’t at the forefront of the current buzz surrounding newer hotspots that continue to pop up in nearby Kaka`ako and Chinatown.
Stage should still be a part of the conversation, though, considering the moment patrons do cross that threshold, they enter a sprawling space that instantly strikes with fashionable décor, a metropolitan feel and bold flavors to follow. They realize it’s about time they rediscover this swanky spot.
On a recent date night, I did just that. I threw on a cocktail dress and set out hand-in-hand for a fun, upscale dinner. While chatting with David Comfort, Stage’s general manager, we agreed that many people think of Stage as an ideal locale for celebrating special occasions, but really it is quite approachable as an any-excuse-to-eat-out kind of place. In fact, we are surprised to find such a diverse crowd dining around us—not just the expected group of ladies out for girls night, but also a budding family with toddler in tow at one table and a group of retired couples at the next.
As we dive right into the menu, one of executive chef Ron de Guzman’s most popular appetizers, Duck Wraps, is up first. Fresh cups of Hirabara Farms’ Big Island-grown butter leaf lettuce hold rich morsels of duck confit that have been cooked in its own succulent fat. On top rests a rainbow sprinkling of red onion pickled in house, cilantro and a kick of jalapeño. These intentional toppings bring pops of tart, fresh and spicy flair to each bite, only to be enhanced by the sweetness of slightly spicy hoisin sauce on the side. When enjoying this dish, it’s impossible to ignore the chef’s clear knack for catering to every part of one’s palate.
“Whenever I put something on a plate, I try and balance it because, if you get all fat, it becomes overwhelming. You need some sharp notes and textures, and so there’s a lot that I think about before I plate a dish; you have to balance colors, textures and, of course, flavors,” explains de Guzman.
Duck Wraps pair wonderfully with another star-studded starter, Stage Hamachi Sashimi.
This play on a simple favorite of sashimi and shoyu gets a makeover with orange and wasabi tobiko, shiso and radish salad, and a “paint stroke” of wasabi. Additionally, little soy-sauce jewels of gelée burst with flavor in our mouths and completely steal the show.
These pupu provide a great introduction to the menu at large, which is billed as contemporary Asian-American cuisine. What that translates to, is the Pacific Rim mix of European and Asian preparations we’re all familiar with, as told through the culinary canvas of de Guzman and sous chef Joy Yamane. Asian influences do dominate here, but there is also plenty of room for other ethnic inspirations in supporting roles.
“You look at Hawai`i and we have so many different cultures here and ethnicities, so I just want to keep it open. We take European styles and flavors, as well as Japanese, Chinese, Mexican—we do it all,” shares de Guzman.
One must enhance these eclectic flavors with a few drinks, right? Stage recently unveiled a revamped beverage selection, which includes a very reasonably priced specialty-cocktails list of on-point classics—suited to both masculine and feminine tastes—made with a twist and presented with theatrical names. I choose the Tempest, a seductive sunset of Li Hing Mui Rum, dark rum, lilikoi purée and orange juice. Salty li hing powder on the rim evens out this sweet libation. As for my date, he goes for a Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA from the new craft-driven selection of beers.
Moving on to the main act, none other than Marcona Almond and Honey Crusted Colorado Lamb Chop will do. Tender and delicate are not words usually associated with lamb, but in this preparation, they’re more than appropriate. De Guzman uses domestic lamb that is softer and less gamy than the New Zealand and Australian varieties commonly found on menus. The chops also are larger than average, making Stage’s dish a truly satisfying number.
When I comment on the remarkable flavor of this entree, the chef’s true modesty comes out. De Guzman is the director of the show, no doubt, but he prefers to remain behind the scenes, letting his dishes shine as the main attractions. He tells me the lamb is easy for him to work with because it is naturally so soft. This may be true, but I know it still takes keen skill to properly handle such a high-quality product and to choose the right flavors to go with it. The chef first grills the lamb, then adds a marvelous crust made with panko, honey and Marcona almonds, and completes it with nutty oil that seeps into and enriches the meat. To finish, it’s baked in the oven until it’s perfectly juicy with a crisp crust. This is by no means an amateur recipe.
From the seasonings to the lamb demi glace, sweet flavors do prevail in the dish. However, the meat itself, rich smear of dense mashed potatoes, and hint of Dijon mustard in the crust provide moments of savory relief. Further harmonizing each element is a glass of 2012 Champs de Reves, or “field of dreams,” Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley, California.
While reveling in this dinner, it is hard not to stop periodically and admire the restaurant’s scenery. With a design scheme that is current without being trendy, the vivid eatery is filled with different chandeliers and lighting fixtures over each table, a mélange of tables and chairs that aren’t matchy-matchy but still go well together, and the daring imagery of oversized, high-fashion photographs. Also noteworthy are giant circular lanterns hanging above that can be seen from street-level when peering up into the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The décor is fitting for a place named Stage—there’s even a show-stopping blue glow illuminating the whole bar and lounge area.
People often say to save room for dessert, but if there were ever a time to truly do so, it would be to taste pastry chef Cainan Sabey’s amazing finales. Never too sweet and always made from scratch, Sabey’s desserts are the definition of celestial, especially the Lilikoi Creamsicle. Full of fresh island ingredients, this treat shows off Sabey’s passion for making fresh sorbet and ice cream, as it comes together with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and liliko`i sorbet on top of organic extra virgin olive oil shortbread crust. In keeping with all of Stage’s plating, the dish looks gorgeous with fanciful swirls of strawberry balsamic coulis and fresh fruit on the side.
In addition to its à la carte menu, Stage offers multi-course tasting menus in the evening as well as a casual matinee menu that is popular for business lunches. The restaurant also hosts monthly themed dinners revolving around entertainment, beer or wine pairings, and even regional cuisines. And with that, let your next gourmet show take the stage.