Pai Honolulu in Downtown Serves Familiar Dishes with Unexpected Flavors
Chef Kevin Lee emerges with a progressive dining experience that’s innovative—not fussy.
Lee’s signature agedashi XO turnip cake
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Executive chef-owner Kevin Lee
courtesy of pai honolulu, tyler yafuso
Pai Honolulu showcases the range of cooking styles and techniques of executive chef-owner Kevin Lee, yet feels like a neighborhood hangout, a place where you walk in and immediately know someone. Nestled in the lobby of Harbor Court in Downtown, the restaurant offers food meticulously and thoughtfully prepared. And, yes, general manager Justine Kadokawa might even hug you.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Pai Honolulu
On my second visit to the restaurant, Lee’s first solo venture, I ran into my brother at the bar and a few other friends scattered through the dining room. The irrepressibly friendly Kadokawa ran over and, before greeting us, launched into a story about how, just minutes earlier, some bacon grilling on the flat top set off the fire alarms and the restaurant was filled with smoke. It would have taken an hour for an engineer to get there to repair the hood—and if it needed parts, that would take a few days—and the restaurant was full that night. My brother, who earned an electrical engineering degree, found a loose connection in the electrical panel and, in his words, “simply pushed it back in.” Ten minutes later, Lee declared, “We’re live,” and the kitchen resumed its service. Crisis averted. Drinks on the house.
This may not be a typical night at Pai, but the casual, friendly vibe has been there since it opened this summer. Lee and Kadokawa never wanted a stuffy restaurant that intimidated diners and appealed to only fair-weather foodies who would revel in the restaurant’s newness before ditching it for something shinier. Instead, the two of them created a concept that feels just like them: warm, inviting, smart, interesting, sincere.
It starts with the name.
Pai is shortened from the Hawaiian word ho‘opai, which means to encourage or rouse. The idea is the food will excite diners, giving them experiences they’ve never had. (Pai can also refer to the rare white-dragon tile in mahjong, a nod to Lee’s Chinese heritage.)
Three-grain risotto with oyster mushrooms
“[The name] really represents what we want to do here in regards to food, service and overall dining,” Lee explains. “We want to give people a different kind of experience.”
Lee delivers on that, serving familiar dishes with unexpected flavors: a baby beet salad that gets a pop of saltiness from ikura, a classic vichyssoise made with locally grown sunchokes and pickled cherries, fried okra seasoned with garam masala, a miniature cannoli stuffed with foie gras.
“I just think of flavors that go together,” says Lee, who earned a degree in food science from the University of California, Davis before attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “It might seem like a reach for some people, but it’s the kind of thinking where you take two things that you remember from experience that work together.”
The best example of this is the agedashi XO turnip cake, on the $135 tasting menu, only available at the chef’s counter. Lee created this dish after he was invited by his alma mater to speak at a conference. He needed to create a dish that represented his style of food, spoke to cultural influences and had a sense of place.
This dish draws from different experiences—and flavors—in Lee’s life: He grew up in California eating the traditional Cantonese law bok gow (turnip cake) at dim sum restaurants, he mastered the XO sauce during a stage (unpaid internship) in Hong Kong, and he has lived in Hawai‘i since opening Prima in Kailua as the chef de cuisine six years ago. Hence, the agedashi preparation of the turnip cake, swapping katsuobushi (dried, smoked skipjack tuna) with smoked akule, and steeping the fish bones with ti leaf to create simple consommé. The miso-cured ali‘i mushrooms add a much-needed umami flavor, the diced papaya sweetness. From start to finish, the components of this dish take a week to make, and the result is something so familiar, so unexpected, so innovative, so Lee.
“I always like to look into why a dish was made this way and what other ingredients in this dish could be represented by other things,” Lee says.
Pai is the culmination of Lee’s career, from his experience working in several Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and Hong Kong to the experimenting he did in the kitchen at Prima. He left the Kailua restaurant three years ago to venture out on his own. His plan was to open his own restaurant at some point, and he did a few pop-up events and conducted cooking and knife-sharpening classes in the meantime. The space was important, and it took him this long to find what he was looking for, in the lobby—not the cavernous upstairs space that saw the demise of three restaurants in 10 years—of Harbor Court. He looked at spaces from Hawai‘i Kai to Sand Island before settling on this 3,000-square-foot one.
Cioppino with Kaua‘i shrimp
“I just saw the potential in it,” says Lee, 35. “It’s really close to Chinatown, it’s in a really safe building, it’s clean, there’s parking in the building. It just all fit.”
On our first visit to Pai, my husband and I sat at the chef’s counter—there were no other seats available—and sampled the $135 tasting menu. Each dish is painstakingly plated and served by the humble chef himself.
What struck me at the time was how calm and unflustered the kitchen staff seemed despite a full dining room. They stood attentively in the sparse kitchen, as if waiting for specific orders, and quietly chatted with each other. When a fillet of nairagi needed to be seared or a deviled egg plated, they went to work, handing the dish to Lee, who finished plating and, with one final lookover, passed it off to the server. There was no commotion, no frantic yelling, no explosive fires spewing from the grill. It was very Zen.
Lee credits a staff that believes in his vision of creating an experience for diners and works hard beforehand to make dinner service run as smoothly as possible. The dishes require intensive preparation, Lee explains, and the staff comes in before lunch to get everything ready. Lee does food runs to Chinatown every day for ingredients he needs and others he finds interesting, which means his menu can change daily, depending on what’s available and what’s in season.
Soft-boiled egg nestled in a carrot-miso purée, encircled by a thick ring of black vinegar
WARM MUSHROOM SALAD WITH A CAULIFLOWER PURÉE
Between my two visits, which were just two weeks apart, many of the dishes had been altered or removed altogether. Initially, the $65 prix fixe menu, only available in the dining room, featured a he‘e and fennel ragu with house-made tagliatelle pasta that was moved to the à la carte bar-and-lounge menu and replaced with a decadent soft-boiled egg nestled in a carrot-miso purée, encircled by a thick ring of black vinegar. The chilled corn soup with turnips and local goat cheese was traded for a cold vichyssoise with North Shore-grown sunchokes, pickled cherries and local ogo. The main entrée two weeks prior was a pan-seared nairagi with baby bok choy and oyster mushrooms; the more recent menu featured barbecue brisket bites mingling with house-made gnocchi, sweet corn kernels, smoked onion, and slivers of Italian parsley and green onions that added a burst of freshness. Dessert had changed, too, from slices of spiced apple banana with a brittle of smoked macadamia nuts and rum gelato to deconstructed s’mores with house-made marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate mousse and gelato infused with the flavor of hay. (Yes, hay.)
Guava Club cocktail
What hadn’t changed much was the bar-and-lounge menu—the one area where you can order dishes à la carte. Small-bite standouts included the beef tartare ($12), a mound of minced beef topped with garlic chives and olive oil on a toasted baguette; a pair of poppable cremini mushroom gougères ($8); and a ridiculously beautiful deviled egg tinted black from a soak in Chinese black tea and topped with Chinese mustard and ginger ($9). There are shared plates, too, with Mirada oysters from the Pacific Northwest ($23), opah belly rillette (similar to pâté) with flatbread ($17), oyster mushroom tempura seasoned with something called umami salt ($16) and grilled double-cut bacon with a sweet tamarind glaze ($13).
The tasting menu at the chef’s counter—which is quite big and can sit more than a dozen patrons—is a splurge, especially if you include wine pairings ($65 more per person, but worth it). Lee decided to only offer prix fixe menus at Pai because he has a specific progression in mind when he designs his dishes. And he created two menus, both of which change often, to keep people interested and coming back, he says.
Chocolate haupia with an almond cookie crumble
Every dish on the tasting menu on my first visit, from the savory fennel panna cotta with a bite of Alaskan king crab in a lemongrass-miso to the escargot ragout served with cavatelli and shiitake mushrooms, was a peek into the creative and meticulous mind of Lee. He’s specific about his seasoning, cautious about overpowering ingredients, gentle with portions and exacting with plating. The baby beet salad, for example, resembles a lei on the plate, with red and golden beets dotted by dollops of herbed ricotta and fish eggs.
And yet, despite technically difficult dishes, curated wine pairings and a wine list that includes a 2008 Gravner Ribolla Gialla from Italy that costs $140 for a bottle, it’s not that kind of restaurant. It’s a place where you find at the table next to yours a couple who lives in your neighborhood celebrating their wedding anniversary, and your brother is at the bar after fixing the hood in the kitchen.
“I wanted to create something that’s comforting and homey, not stuffy,” Lee says. “I want people to be themselves and just have a good time.”
While the tasting menu at the counter is an intimate experience, it’s pricey, especially if you include wine (which you should). Consider opting for the more affordable prix fixe menu in the dining room, adding on the wine pairing and supplementing your dinner with items from the lounge menu. You might wind up spending about the same per person, but you’ll get Lee’s curated dish selection and ones you can pick yourself.
Pai Honolulu, Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St., Suite 110, (808) 744-2531, paihonolulu.com; dinner: Tues.–Sat., 5:30 to 11 p.m.; bar & lounge: 4:30 to 11 p.m.