35th Hale ‘Aina Awards: Pai Honolulu Wins Best New Restaurant, Service and Tasting Menu
Pai Honolulu impresses with carefully constructed plates, addictive small bites, killer cocktails and now house-made breads.
Kevin Lee, chef-owner of Pai Honolulu, folds the dough for focaccia bread, which he started making in-house this year.
The restaurant is quiet, empty, dark. A lone figure moves among the shadows, disappearing in doorways and reappearing around corners. Suddenly, the lights snap on, the air conditioner starts to whir. Kevin Lee, the chef-owner of Pai Honolulu, emerges from the dark, holding a cup of cold-brewed coffee. Monday begins.
For the past few months, Lee has been using Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, to work on his latest culinary project: bread. Since the end of 2017, he’s been perfecting the art of bread-making, learning methods from books and on YouTube, following bread masters on Instagram, dissecting recipes and obsessing over the craft. In August, he launched lunch service at the Downtown restaurant, with a menu built almost entirely around his artisanal breads. Cream of broccoli soup in a sturdy sourdough bowl, smoked brisket sandwiched in a flavorful ciabatta, a 90-day dry-aged beef burger with a soft potato bun—every bread product made by Lee.
“I figured if we were going to serve bread in the restaurant, I was going to do it myself,” he says, matter-of-factly.
It’s not like he needed more on his plate. Pai Honolulu opened in June 2017 in the lobby of Harbor Court with thoughtful prix fixe and seasonal tasting menus, each dish meticulously plated and unexpected. To that lineup, Lee added inventive à la carte dishes—roasted vegetable tartine with Umbria truffle and herbed ricotta, grilled double-cut bacon cured and smoked in-house with a tamarind glaze, uni and kabocha risotto with pumpkin seeds—for diners who preferred leisurely noshing to progressive prix fixe dinners. Then, in August, the restaurant opened for lunch, hoping to capture the working Downtown crowd. Lee cures, ages and smokes his own meats; personally shops for fresh ingredients in Chinatown several times a week; and now he makes his own breads.
His dedication to creating the best possible experience for diners, his thoughtfulness in everything he does and his ability to serve something new in a neighborhood jam-packed with trendy restaurants is why Pai Honolulu earned the first-ever Editor’s Choice for Best New Restaurant in the 35th annual Hale ‘Aina Awards.
Lee, who honed his skills in several Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and Hong Kong and earned a reputation for ingredient-focused cooking at Prima in Kailua, has created a restaurant unlike any other in Honolulu, while constantly looking for new ways to improve every dish. His wife and general manager, Justine Kadokawa Lee, is the quintessential host, smiley and friendly, making sure your glasses are full and you know where the bathroom is. Together, they create a harmonic balance in the restaurant—inviting, interesting, sincere.
It’s just after 9 a.m. and Lee starts on the focaccia. All of the dry ingredients have already been measured out the day before, streamlining the process. He stands at a stainless steel worktable, the shelf behind him lined with containers of spices, chocolate wafers and apple pectin, a gelling agent. To the left, on another shelf, are his sourdough starters, which date back to November 2017, wild and hungry. He uses the natural starter—made from the simple combination of all-purpose flour and water, mixed by hand—because it gives the bread a more complex flavor, a thicker crust, a better texture.
He combines leaven with an exact amount of water, turning the liquidy, bubbling mixture slowly. Then he adds the dry ingredients—unlike the other breads, Pai’s focaccia is flavored with dried and fresh herbs, chilies and garlic—to the wet mixture and combines it by hand.
“It’s actually quite a workout,” he says, smiling. “It’s like going to the gym.”
Lee scrapes the sticky dough into a commercial-grade 20-quart Vollrath stand mixer, which he bought a few weeks prior, to knead for about six minutes. He lets it rest for another 10 minutes, then adds salt. (“If salt comes into direct contact with the yeast,” Lee explains, “it will kill it.”) He snaps on the mixer again and, when the dough is adequately combined, he transfers it to a plastic Lexan container and covers it, which helps maintain the heat that’s created when the yeast starts feasting on the starch. The resulting heat helps the dough rise faster, he explains.
He repeats the process, with a few adjustments, for the ciabatta and sourdough breads. After the first batch rises for an hour, he starts folding—not really kneading—the dough by hand, stretching it over and over again to develop the gluten. This method tends to give the bread a better shape and structure. Then he puts that on the side to let it rise again. While the last batch of dough is tumbling in the stand mixer—he used to do all of this by hand—he grabs a cooler bag and heads to the markets in Chinatown.
The lunch menu features Lee’s artisanal breads.
He picks up a package of wonton wrappers from Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory, then walks to Gon & Ti for some fresh Thai basil, which is used as a garnish on a dish with chilled lobster and pulled mozzarella. He heads to another market for curry leaves—these are fried and served on top of roasted cauliflower florets—and dried shrimp, which is turned into a powder and dusted on house-made shrimp chips with charred Maui onions and a horseradish crème fraîche. His last stop is a nondescript market for dried scallops, which he uses in his special XO sauce.
He doesn’t mind running these errands. It gives him a chance to see what’s available and in season, which inspires his menu. It’s also an excuse to grab a jasmine milk tea bubble drink from Domo Café.
Lee returns to the restaurant around noon, ready to start prepping for tomorrow’s lunch and dinner service. In between, he continues to fold and portion the different batches of dough. The focaccia, ciabatta and baguettes are baked at around 5 p.m.; the sourdough rye is placed in cloth-lined proofing baskets and stored in the refrigerator overnight to cold proof until it’s baked the following day.
The signature dish at Pai is the agedashi XO turnip cake.
Lee wants to experiment with more bread styles and techniques. He can’t stop himself. Walking around the kitchen, you get the feeling this is just how he is. The walk-in is packed with curing meats in various stages of aging: a whole pork leg for prosciutto, fennel salami, duck prosciutto, pepperoni, Spanish chorizo, mortadella, pork bacon, lamb bacon, adobo headcheese. All of the menus are changing soon, too, and he’s planning on hosting more themed dinners and special events in the coming year.
Nothing about this—not the extra work or the extra effort or the lack of a day off—bothers him. He’s fully invested in every aspect of the menu, and all he wants is to put out high-quality, ingredient-forward food that’s memorable and delicious.
And he does.
“I really enjoy it,” Lee says, taking a break from bread making to refuel on cold-brewed coffee. “I like to see the whole process. And I’m not even close to mastering this. There’s still so much to learn.”
Pai Honolulu, 55 Merchant St., Suite 110, 744-2531, paihonolulu.com