Nico’s Pier 38: From Plate Lunch Spot to Hale ‘Aina-Award Winning Restaurant
Nico Chaize has gone from dishing out plate lunches to running an expanded Nico’s Pier 38 along with its new twin in Kailua.
Nico Chaize inspecting ‘ahi at the Honolulu Fish Auction
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
Fresh ‘ahi is Nico Chaize’s calling card, so it’s fitting to join him before dawn outside Nico’s Pier 38 as he heads over to the Honolulu Fish Auction. We pass three Korean visitors wearing backpacks waiting for the restaurant’s 6:30 a.m. opening on our three-minute walk to the auction warehouse. As we go, Nico name-checks longline boats tied up dockside, singling out those that take the most care with their catches.
Inside the hall, Chaize murmurs at the sight of so many prime specimens on beds of crushed ice: four rows, most of rainbow-hued ‘ahi, plus coppery opah the size of Captain America’s shield, gold-green mahimahi and more. “We are the only restaurant with its own buyer here,” Chaize says, surveying the auction room. “No, wait, there’s a guy,” he says, pointing to the owner of a downtown storefront shop. “Otherwise, it’s all buyers for big corporations.”
As buyers in knee boots and quilted jackets follow the auctioneer down a row, Chaize walks a different row, explaining how he selects the ‘ahi by the tail cuts and body core samples. “We buy fish graded sushi-2, 2-plus, poke and cooking grade,” he says. “We are doing close to 2,500 pounds of fresh fish a day at our restaurants. The price is always going up and down.”
THE FISH BUYER: Ricky Patacsil buys 2,500 pounds of fish a day for Nico’s; then he breaks them down.
Today, Chaize is just looking. His buyer, Ricky Patacsil, bought 3,500 pounds of fish yesterday and has been busy breaking them down and cutting them up. Dedicated to the restaurant, Patacsil chooses more selectively and hunts undervalued fish, such as one downgraded for a bruised or mushy tail cross-section. Chaize stops to show how that same fish can have a core that is as bright red, firm and fatty as sushi or poke grade. “That’s the only way we can give the customer fresh fish for $15 at lunch. In Seattle and in California, the same plate goes for $35 to $45.”
Chaize’s thrill at hunting for the best fish at the highest value is contagious. His customers certainly appreciate it, voting Nico’s Pier 38 a silver Hale ‘Aina for Best Seafood and a gold for Best Restaurant That Caters—the latter largely attributable to the restaurant’s assorted-fish party platters: poke, sashimi, maki sushi, shrimp cocktail, smoked fish and smoked fish spread.
The catering gold actually confused Chaize, who stresses that the restaurant doesn’t deliver or do catering in the traditional sense. “Give it to Chef Chai,” he says, referring to silver Hale ‘Aina award-winner Chai Chaowasaree’s eponymous restaurant. But his public has spoken—loving not only the fish platters but the plate lunches, too. “We do get takeout orders of 20 at a time,” Chaize allows.
The first, much smaller Nico’s opened in 2004 as part of the Pier 38 waterfront development, quickly attracting lines of customers drawn by high-quality fresh fish at reasonable prices. Space was limited: “People would sit in their cars and eat with the air conditioning on,” Chaize says. Even with success and a move to a larger space in 2011, Nico’s Pier 38 hasn’t forgotten where it came from—and has maintained its salt-of-the-sea reputation. Handsome yet casual, on a typical day it will accommodate dockworkers and downtown office workers, tourists and local families, uniting them in a shared love of food that comes out fast, fresh and hot.
‘AHI AND EGGS Flash-seared with bacon-and-sausage fried rice, eggs and fresh fruit—a breakfast of champions.
“The breakfast ‘ahi and eggs will set you up for the whole day,” Chaize promises as I tuck in. Maybe that’s true for some, but after I tried and loved it, followed by the chunky bouillabaisse at lunch, and ‘ahi four ways at dinner—fried nuggets, poke-and-avocado nachos, ‘ahi ribs and waffles and the Kailua location’s daily special of seared ‘ahi with shishito peppers and deep-fried plantain in a basil-tarragon reduction—I was still able to steal bites from a neighbor’s succulent herb-coated ‘ahi salad Nicoise.
Lunch at the Honolulu Nico’s starts at a stevedore’s hour, 10 a.m., and tends to see 700 or more self-service diners. They flow through the spacious indoor-outdoor configuration—with a small island bar and a view of the fleet—without becoming cacophonous. At 2 p.m., the pace downshifts to a 3 to 5 p.m. pau hana, often with live music (a Hale ‘Aina finalist in the category). Promptly at 5 p.m., the space deftly transitions into a romantic waterside restaurant with waiter service and dishes that reflect French-born Chaize’s haute cuisine repertoire. (His résumé includes Michel’s at the Colony Surf, The Bistro at Century Center and, in Los Angeles, Café Marguerite and the famous Hollywood hangout, La Poubelle.)
The daily specials—you can find them on the Nico’s Pier 38 Facebook page—are out early for the waitstaff to taste. On the day we visited the Honolulu Nico’s, the catch of the day was pan-seared ‘ahi in a truffle-lemon-tarragon cream for $13.95. There was a deep-fried ono with spicy lomi tomato salsa ($12.95) and a local greens salad topped with walnut-panko-crusted mahi with a Thai curry cream ($13.95). The crispy lechon special was pork belly built to a spire of tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and onions.
That pork belly comes closest to Chaize’s upbringing in Lyon, the landlocked city in France that is a meat-lover’s paradise, known for butcher-to-table restaurants and chefs such as Paul Bocuse—and Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine pioneer Philippe Padovani and the Pacific Club’s Eric Leterc. As a young boy, Chaize recalls studying the menu outside the famous La Tour Rose, where Padovani would first attract international attention. But cooking wasn’t yet a passion. That came along with a California beach romance that diverted him from a backpacking sojourn to Mexico, after which Chaize and now-wife Juliana began working in Los Angeles restaurants. A few years later, “Juliana wanted to go home to Hawai‘i,” says Chaize. “She’s a local girl at heart.”
CATCH OF THE DAY: ALWAYS A FRESH FILLET OF AUCTION FISH WITH A FINELY PREPARED SAUCE. SEEN HERE: PAN-SEARED MONCHONG WITH POMODORO SAUCE AND SAUCE VIERGE.
Juliana is also the stepdaughter of Jim Cook, who had his own fishing boat and opened POP Fishing & Marine, with partner Sean Martin, on the pier. “I grew up eating great fresh fish every day,” she recalls—a bit of foreshadowing. While that theme marinated, Chaize went to work at Michel’s, executing the formal French and international classics of chef Eberhard “Hardy” Kintscher. “They came in together and once I met Juliana, I knew I had to hire him,” Hardy says, with a wink. “She’s such a strong woman, I knew he would go far.”
Even doing takeout at POP, Chaize aimed high. “From the start, I knew that if our plate lunches were the finest quality,” he says, “I knew the stevedores and dockworkers would come back.” Plate-lunch options include lau lau, squid lū‘au and a beef stew that Chaize makes boeuf bourguignon-style with entire bottles of wine in the sauce. Got a sweet craving? If you’re in the neighborhood at 9:30 a.m., that’s when fresh-baked chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies show up on the counter. Anytime is fine to visit the in-house fish market for the freshest auction fish, poke and smoked fish.
Regulars know the pleasures of skipping rush-hour traffic on Nimitz Highway in favor of watching evening fall on the commercial harbor scene while sampling the dinner menu and perhaps revisiting the furikake ‘ahi that won national TV exposure from Guy Fieri on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show on The Food Network. Finally, if you want a change of pace or live over the Pali, you can enjoy the high-energy scene at the new outpost, Nico’s Pier 38 Kailua.
Dinner hour found the parking lot of Kailua Nico’s, 6 months old and occupying a completely renovated space formerly known as Pinky’s Pūpū Bar & Grill, packed with gleaming SUVs, luxury sedans and Minis. Inside, a high peaked ceiling soars over enthusiastic eaters and drinkers. Arrayed around the bar, four widescreens showed an NFL game, a nod to Pinky’s sports bar past, playing without sound. It’s a different vibe from the Nico’s in Honolulu, but Chaize made sure there’s a waterfront here, too: Windows overlook Kawainui Canal.
FURIKAKe ‘AHI: Made famous on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
Chaize keeps an eye on both places, spending the mornings in town and departing for the Kailua restaurant in the afternoon. With 180 employees, though, he relies on extensive training and systems that he began to work out back in the day when he’d personally cook 700 takeout lunches daily. These days, he can count on head chef Jeorge Siores to oversee kitchen innovations that Chaize designed himself, right down to numerous stations to deposit the fish and vegetable bits that go into stocks. In Kailua, chef Meghan Ellis adds her own daily inspirations to the mix. “She’s so creative,” says Chaize, as we finish our meal with her dulce de leche Swiss roll for dessert. “I’m going to hate to lose her.”
“What?” Ellis does a double-take, then grins. “I’m not going anywhere!”
It’s unusual to find two popular places that are truly populist in price and yet refined, as defined by what ends up on your plate. It might strain credulity that such a varied and high-volume operation can keep up the pace. But, after trailing cheerful staff who hummed along with the precision and swing of a Broadway show, it seems like we can count on Nico’s for a long and satisfying run, and maybe a couple of more Hale ‘Aina awards. All this and plenty of free parking at both restaurants? That might call for a Hale-lujah.
Nico’s at Pier 38, 1129 N. Nimitz Highway, nicospier38.com