Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
To excite, encourage, raise up and rouse. That is the translation of the name of a new Honolulu restaurant, Pai Honolulu (from its original name, Ho‘opai). It’s also how chef and owner Kevin Lee wants his guests to feel about their dining experience at Pai Honolulu.
You probably thought the Hawaiian name of the restaurant and Lee’s Asian surname meant another local boy had spread his wings in the culinary world. Well, not quite. Kevin Lee hails from the Bay Area. His formal training began with his earning a bachelor’s degree in food science from the University of California at Davis, followed by a culinary degree with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Actually, Lee first set foot in the 50th while on vacation, visiting an institute classmate. That vacation turned into an opening chef gig at Prima in Kailua. After a couple of years, he left Prima to strike out on his own, looking for the ideal location for his new restaurant. That took four long years, but we now have Pai Honolulu.
You can grab one of the nine bar seats or sofas in the lounge area and simply enjoy cocktails and small appetizer plates, or you can reserve one of 10 chef counter seats for the full eight-course meal, or reserve one of the 14 seats in the dining area for either small appetizer plates or the preset eight- or five-course meals. We opted for the chef’s counter seating, which looks directly into the open kitchen for the full extravaganza.
Coconut Curry Panna Cotta
miso-cured abalone, lychee, coconut water Thai basil
Domaine Bechtold Cremant d’Alsace
The panna cotta, or cooked cream, was a perfect single bite with a little bit of salty, sweet and heat, almost like a thickened Thai curry. And, the effervescence of the sparkling wine cleansed the palate for the next course.
Baby Beet Salad
masoor dal, herbed ricotta, ikura
Paired with Principe Pallavicini, 2014
I didn’t think the masoor dal, or lightly curried lentil paste, would work with the beets, but the earthiness from both elements balanced nicely contrasted with the salty ricotta and ikura.
Agedashi XO Turnip Cake
Smoked akule, papaya, ti leaf broth
Paired with Domaine Bechtold
This was one of my favorite dishes. The crisp exterior of the turnip cake featured fruity and earthy notes from the papaya and ti leaf broth with a touch of heat from the XO sauce. Note: the Gewurztraminer poured for this dish was the perfect complement.
basmati rice, garlic chive, black
Paired with Monastero Suore
Cistercenci “Coenbobium,” 2013
This was another one of my favorites. The sweet-sour qualities of the black vinegar and the strong herbal notes of the garlic chive enhanced the flavor of the escargot, which usually doesn’t have a pronounced flavor of its own. The next time I’m in Chinatown I plan to look for a bottle of black vinegar, although I’m sure Chef Lee added his own touches to the vinegar.
King Crab Agnolotti
corn béchamel, kabocha, chorizo, hijiki, curry leaf
Paired with Liquid Farm
I didn’t really get the flavor of the King Crab, but I was amazed at the balance between this dish’s many salty and sweet flavors after initially assuming that everything would clash.
Foie Gras Cannoli
This was like a between-course amuse bouche. I could have consumed several more of these crunchy shells filled with a very light foie gras mousse.
Confit “Huli Huli” Cornish Hen
roasted eggplant, quinoa, sautéed greens,
Paired with Fiddlehead “728” Pinot Noir
This was the only dish with a pronounced saltiness. The flavors definitely shouted: “I’m poultry!”
This was served as a pre-dessert palate cleanser, but I could have finished a whole dish of this guri-guri, which was like a frozen mango lassi (Indian yogurt beverage). A fellow diner asked Chef Lee for a second scoop to enjoy in a glass of Prosecco.
Almond cookie crumble, lilikoi curd
Paired with Diplomatico Rum Riserva
Anytime you combine chocolate and coconut, I’m there! Add some aged reserve rum and I’m not leaving!
Manoa Chocolate Brownie & Butter Mochi
So, what were the damages at the end of the night? The eight-course meal runs $135 per person. For an additional $65, you can add the wine pairings. My fellow diners and I concurred that the food was as good as a tasting menu at Senia, or Chef Mavro or La Mer at the Halekulani.
Chef Lee’s current menu leans a bit more toward the Chinese influence, although when he ran the cooktop at Prima in Kailua, it was purely new American cuisine. Lee plans to change Pai’s menu with the seasons, so the menu detailed here will only be available until around September. We plan on returning to sample the chef’s small plates . . . and to enjoy more cocktails.
Harbor Court – 1st floor
55 Merchant St., Suite 110
Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.
Bar & Lounge opens at 4:30 p.m.
Closed Sundays and Mondays
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”