First Look: Pai Honolulu

Chef Kevin Lee has resurfaced with his own restaurant concept that focuses on technique, flavors and local ingredients.
The baby beet salad at Pai Honolulu, which opened this month in the lobby of Harbor Court in Downtown Honolulu.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox


It’s hard to explain the food at Pai Honolulu, which opened in June in the lobby of Harbor Court.


The restaurant offerings run the gamut: a twist on the traditional Cantonese law bok gow (turnip cake); fried okra seasoned with garam masala; escargot ragout with little cavatelli shells; and creamy mango guri guri that tastes like biting into a juicy, ripe mango.


It’s all over the place—in a good way.


The restaurant is helmed by noted chef Kevin Lee, the former chef de cuisine of Prima in Kailua who has cooked in several Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City and Hong Kong. And this experience shows. His menu is eclectic and exciting, with nods to various cooking styles and international flavors.


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—and that includes the restaurant’s stellar lineup of interesting cocktails and wines.


It was certainly that way for me.


We sat at the chef’s counter on a recent Thursday night—there were no other seats available—and sampled the $135 tasting menu ($65 more for wine pairings, which I highly recommend). Each dish is painstakingly plated and served by the humble chef himself.


The chef’s tasting menu is completely different from the $65 prix fixe menu available in the dining room. The bar has its own menu, too, though you can order any of those dishes as supplements to the prix fixe, wherever you’re sitting. Small bites include citrus-cured salmon with ikura and crème fraîche on buttered toast ($10), beef tartare with garlic chives and olive oil on a toasted baguette ($12) and mushroom puffs with pecorino gougère ($8). Shared plates at the bar include grilled double-cut bacon with a tamarind glaze ($13), eggplant-miso hummus with flatbread ($13) and oyster-mushroom tempura ($16).


The beef tartare is available on Pai’s bar menu—and it’s worth ordering with the prix fixe dinner.


The chef’s tasting menu started with a savory fennel panna cotta with a bite of Alaskan king crab in a lemongrass-miso jus with a single leaf of Thai basil placed oh so carefully with a kitchen tweezer. The crab was fresh and the panna cotta was creamy and buttery.


This was followed by a baby beet salad that was beautifully plated, a lei on the plate, with red and golden beets and dollops of herbed ricotta and pops of ikura, which added a nice saltiness. There were lots of flavor surprises on this plate.


One of the menu’s standout dishes was the agedashi XO turnip cake with flaky smoked akule and bits of papaya in an interesting ti leaf broth. The cake had the consistency of tofu, with a spicy XO kick. My husband said he could eat this all day, every day.


This savory panna cotta may be small, but the flavors are bold.


This is Lee’s take on the traditional turnip cake, preparded agedashi-style in an earthy ti leaf broth.


The escargot ragout was served with perfectly cooked cavatelli—an underused pasta, in my opinion—and shiitake mushrooms. The pan-roasted Big Island abalone was served atop a colorful relish of kabocha, spicy chorizo and hijiki. And the dry-aged huli-style Cornish hen was a sizeable entrée with creamy polenta, sautéed greens and Ho Farms cherry tomatoes.


The escagot is served with cavatelli pasta.


The Big Island abalone is pan-roasted and served with diced chorizo and kabocha, then drizzled with curry-leaf oil.


The chicken is dry-aged to bring out more its flavor.


The chocolate haupia finale was outstanding. It had the texture of a truffle, which I loved. The almond cookie crumble provided a nice amount of crunch, while the liliko‘i curd added tartness. This was a perfect dessert.


This chocolate haupia was as decadent as it was delicious.


Though the plates were small, the servings were just enough to keep me interested but wanting more. And I wasn’t hungry at the end of the night.


But I was eager to come back again.


Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St., Suite 110, dinner is served from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, bar and lounge is open from 4:30 to 10 p.m., (808) 744-2531,