INSIDE THE HARBOR Court condo’s soaring ground-level plaza—which always makes me think of the clinical Mount Olympus in the grade-Z 1980s film Clash of the Titans—is chef Kevin Lee’s long-awaited restaurant, PAI Honolulu. Tadpole Studio (which is behind the groundbreaking Hau‘oli Lofts now going up) has transformed the crescent-shaped space that was Umami Café into an airy blond-wood and slate-blue-accented room that is at once open and—like its fellow chef-driven spot, Senia—divided into different areas offering different dining experiences.
Lee came to O‘ahu in 2011 from New York to be the chef de cuisine of Prima, where he, with partners Alejandro Briceño and Lindsey Ozawa, put Kailua on the dining map with an Italian-accented menu. Since Prima was sold in 2014, Lee has been a culinary nomad—catering events and teaching knife-sharpening skills. His three years in the wilderness was spurred by one desire—to remain in Hawai‘i.
His mission has come together in Pai, a name that unites Lee’s Chinese heritage with his adopted home. The word means “plate” in Mandarin and is part of “ho‘opai,” which, in Hawaiian, means to uplift, inspire or raise up. The California native and CIA graduate worked at Floyd Cardoz’s pioneering Tabla and John Fraser’s vegcentric Dovetail in New York. At Prima, you could taste his experience and talent in his sleights of flavor and interest in stuff that grows in the ground.
At Pai, Lee and his team—which notably includes sous-chef Ricky Goings, who added a new dimension to Sushi ii with his nightly cooked specials—focus on surf and turf. In this case, turf actually means vegetables, not beef.
The toque does this through two menus—the five-course $65 prix fixe and the nine-course $135 chef’s tasting served at the counter facing the open kitchen. And at the bar and in a petite lounge area, you can order from an a la carte menu of haute small bites.
With so much anticipation, Pai has a lot to live up to. Visits during its first three weeks of existence revealed a place full of promise, but still finding its groove.
The restaurant has no investor—it is all Lee and his fiancee/manager, Justine Kadokawa, as well as friends—such as Ozawa—who pitch in to do everything from washing dishes to cooking on the line. The couple has assembled an attentive yet relaxed staff who in turn make you feel relaxed.
Harbor Court residents have an instant Cheers in their midst—head bartender Jessica Laidlaw, formerly of Kaka‘ako’s Bevy, has created a great cocktail menu and fine, welcoming team. You spot a bottle of Plymouth sloe gin behind the bar and crave a sloe gin fizz? You’ll get a good one. (If they add a happy hour, the bar will certainly become a prime pau hana spot.)
Both menus follow a kaiseki-like arc, starting light and adding heft with each subsequent dish, but the overall effect is subdued in comparison to Lee’s past cooking. And though he has said he would lean toward more Asian and island dishes—in other words, no Prima II!—pasta figures prominently on the menus—so far.
That surf-and-turf combo arises consistently. Lee reinvents the beet salad as a jewellike root-and-roe composition. It comes with salmon eggs, as well as nicely chewy red lentils, ricotta and mustard. And he takes on the ‘ahi tartare of soups—chilled corn. There’s a reason these dishes won’t go away. They are delicious, and good chefs can make them fresh and new. Lee’s silky elixir is made with goat cheese and comes with a lace collar of turnip slivers, pickled cherry bits, corn nibs, tarragon and ogo, creating an eyebrow-raising unexpected mix of subtly sweet and briny.
Dim sum and izakaya fare meld in an agedashi XO turnip cake. The almost fluffy cake cube is accented with pickled serrano pepper, smoked akule and mango and sits in a ti leaf broth—a Hawai‘i microcosm in a bowl.
Other plates show a need for some refinement. A he‘e (octopus) and fennel ragu gooey with curried fonduta (shades of Lee’s famed curry Bolognese at Prima) has people saying “It’s like beef!” For me, however, this is a sad waste of octopus.
More successful is a pipipi (sea snail) ragout—a rich, resonant dish that has the snails’ briny chewiness mixing with similarly shaped housemade cavatelli. And what made it even more delicious was finding out that Lee and Kadokawa had plucked the pipipi off rocks on the North Shore themselves that morning. It is the earthiest seafood dish ever.
One night, the prix fixe menu’s pan-roasted swordfish—accompanied with earthy wood ear mushrooms and roasted broccoli—tasted good, but was overcooked, a glitch I’m sure is already rectified as the kitchen settles in.
Chefs throw around the word “humble” a lot—they’re always being humbled by something on their Instagram feeds and in interviews. Lee is one chef who actually seems humble and humbled—he’s humble about his cooking and humbled to be able to live and work here. Like Candide cultivating his own garden, Lee steadily plies his craft without a lot of fanfare—his efforts (and the bountiful cheap parking) are bound to result in a bumper crop of memorable food experiences.
Harbour Court, 55 Merchant St., Downtown Honolulu, O‘ahu, 744.2531
Bar + Lounge menu, $8-$23; chef’s tasting menu, $135; prix fixe menu, $65