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So impressed, I almost say, “Shut up,” to chef de cuisine Jon Matsubara from Hyatt’s Japengo when he describes the dish I am about to photograph. “It’s a loco moco with foie gras,” he says. Somehow, I manage to suppress my exclamation of incredulity combined with elation.
“With filet mignon?” I ask. Yes. The Loco “Foie Gras” Moco — Matsubara makes exuberant air quotes — is a decadent treatment of the local favorite. At its base, a savory bed of rice enriched with Hamakua mushrooms and bonito. At the heart, a medallion of sous vide filet mignon (vacuum-sealed with butter then gently cooked in a water bath) and two ounces of delicate foie gras. Enrobing these classy constituents, a foie gras jus refined with black truffle and a Maderia wine reduction. Perched on top, the coup de grace: a diminutive quail egg on the verge of oozing its golden yolk.
This dish is just one of many in Matsubara’s Taste of Japengo ($70), a tasting menu that takes you on a joy ride of Hawaii’s best. “It’s a progression,” the chef says, from lighter to heavier fare that culminates in the indulgent moco.
Another one of Japengo’s tasting menus, one for seafood lovers to dive into ($95), starts with a bang. A shooter, that is: the raw Amaebi Shooter.
Inspired by Matsubara’s travels to Japan, the “super fresh” shooter features amaebi shrimp, caught fresh off the shore of Molokai, Kumamoto oyster — the “smallest and sweetest oyster on the market,” according to Matsubara — in addition to ruby-colored ikura, a quail egg, and a drizzle of ponzu and sesame chili oil. It’s a combination that’s delicately briny yet fresh tasting, making for a palate-cleansing, appetite-whetting starter. The shrimp’s flavorful fried head is served on the side as a crunchy follow-up. “It’s kind of like a chip,” he says.
Dedicated to fresh and locally sourced products, Japengo offers further example of how the restaurant puts seafood on a pedestal. In the case of the eye-catching palatial Seafood Tower (market price, around $65), soaring with oysters, Kona lobster, ahi sashimi, king crab, abalone and shrimp nestled on crushed ice, it’s in the literal sense. “Once this hits the dining room, everyone orders it,” Matsubara says. Cocktail sauce spiced with vodka and wasabi, classic mustard and shoyu wasabi accompany the tower for dunking. For optimum enjoyment, share the high-rise as a starter among your table. It’s interactive by design, an attribute that’s in line with the chef’s cooking philosophy: “fun, interesting and playful.”
A cheerful attitude towards food is what keeps the chef passionate in his profession. After whipping up menus, training his cooks, and working all night in the kitchen and front of house, Matsubara heads home to cook for his family. But when he’s not preparing meals for his three daughters and wife, you won’t see him in any fancy restaurants. When it comes to dining out decisions, “I defer to my kids on that,” he says.
When I ask Matsubara what his New Year’s resolution is, “To stop eating dinner at 2 a.m.,” the busy chef says with a chuckle.
Keep an eye on Matsubara for what he has in store for Japengo in 2015.
Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa Ewa Tower, Third Floor
2424 Kalakaua Ave.
Nightly, 6-10 p.m.