Chef Alan Takasaki offers classic fare at Le Bistro

Alan Takasaki marches to the beat of his own drum. In a sleepy strip mall in Aina Haina, with KFC on one side and a 7-Eleven on the other, the 49-year-old chef/owner of Le Bistro has created what few of his peers have been able to achieve: a busy, solidly booked neighborhood restaurant with incredibly good, classically inspired food, a moderately priced wine list and an enviable ambiance.

Utterly modest, but with a quiet confidence that’s never far from his gentle, smiling exterior, Takasaki could, in fact, be the poster boy for the self-effacing, humble kind of professional we in Hawaii love. Ask him about the style of food at Le Bistro and he shakes his head, ruminates for 30 seconds or so and then answers, “I don’t really know what it is. We don’t tell people too much about a style – we haven’t given it a name – because we don’t want to get their expectations up.”

Talk about his experiences working at world famous Michelin-starred restaurants Le Bernardin, La Truffe Noir, QV and with legendary chefs Joachim Splichal and Gilbert Le Coze, and he’ll tell you how lucky he was to have had such mentors. And ask about the phenomenal success of Le Bistro, and he smiles, shakes his head and says it probably has a lot to do with good luck.

But truly, good luck has almost nothing to do with Alan Takasaki’s success. In fact, it was a stroke of near catastrophic bad luck that led to his return to Hawaii from Europe, a move he never intended to make. On the recommendation of Gilbert Le Coze and through other European colleagues, Takasaki spent a summer training at restaurants in Bordeaux and the Dordogne, building experience.

“But on my way through Paris, somebody stole everything I had,” he remembers, recounting the tale so somberly that you get the impression he still misses those long-gone possessions. “I had a shirt and a pair of jeans and shoes, and that was it,” he says. Disillusioned, he returned to Hawaii where he drifted through some “really tough,” years.

“I knew I wanted to open my own place,” he says softly, “but I had no money and I was pretty much just in survival mode.” He admits to thinking then that he’d lost his feel for cooking and was uninspired by the Hawaii food scene of the late 1980s.

But tenacity prevailed, and Takasaki eventually had enough funds to finally open his own place. Le Bistro debuted in September 2001, a week before the infamous events of that month sent restaurants across America into a downward spin.

“We were lucky, in a way,” he says. “People tell me now that they felt sorry for us and that’s why they came out to eat at the restaurant, and I’m grateful for that.”

It may have been true that local customers felt that the young, local chef could use a morale boost in his first, difficult months, but it may also be just another of the self-effacing statements Takasaki seems comfortable with. A more likely scenario is that from the day he opened, discriminating diners recognized that they had a phenomenon uncommon in Honolulu – a true neighborhood bistro.

But great food and good luck are only part of the recipe for a successful restaurant. Ambience, service, consistency and attitude are all crucial for longevity. At Le Bistro, the wait staff wears jeans and stylish black shirts, act professionally and are attentive. Sunny yellow curtains, minimal décor, soft lighting, linen tablecloths and just enough space between the tables so pauses in conversation don’t leave you eavesdropping on your neighbors make for a intimate setting. And while reservations are strongly recommended, even the most well-heeled customers seem happy to wait outside in the parking lot for a table. Waiting for our table one night, I chatted with a prominent Honolulu businessman who proclaimed Le Bistro “absolutely the best restaurant in Honolulu.”

The food is almost addictive.

There are simple, unpretentious presentations of dishes like escargot, foie gras, French onion soup, lamb chops, twice-cooked breast of muscovy duck and short ribs. And certainly the food has a certain comfort element (creamy, simple mashed potatoes, red wine reductions, rib eye with cognac and Roquefort butter, exquisite pork chops and French country beef stew), but it is food so perfectly executed that the flavors linger long after you go home. One night after dinner I woke up craving the orrecheiette pasta with Italian sausage, spinach, tomatoes and garlic. I had had them as an appetizer just hours before, and couldn’t wait to devour an entire bowl of the tiny little pasta ears in their meaty, rustic sauce again.

And while Takasaki might protest that the menu is simple, it thrives because it is built upon classic techniques.

“A lot of the time, as a young chef, you don’t understand those dishes, and you can’t see the bigger picture,” he explains, referring to his “crazy” early days of working with Lecoze, Splichel and others. “But a lot of the dishes I learned are classic ones that can be reproduced and taught quite easily. Twenty years later I can see their place.”

Takasaki insists that most of the dishes on the menu are there for the customers, not glamorous dishes designed to bring attention to the chef. “They’re not always the ones I’d do to challenge myself,” he says, quietly, “but you have to think, what do people want to eat two or three times a month? I think that it’s this kind of food. We added dishes in the early days because people would ask for them and they’ve stayed on the menu because they seem to work.”

There’s something wonderfully refreshing about this gorgeous restaurant in the middle of a parking lot – and about the chef too. I ask Takasaki what it is he’s ultimately doing in the kitchen – what his goal as a chef/owner is, and he pauses for a really long time. We sit quietly in the silence of his empty restaurant as he thinks.

“I’m just trying to survive, really,” he says. “Our kitchen is small, it limits what we can do and we compromise all the time. Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.” And on his success in running a restaurant that has almost a cult following of diners?

“I admire everyone who manages to run a restaurant here in Hawaii,” he says. “To be successful, you really have to have things fall into place. And I think that we’re really lucky.”

Wait until you try his food. Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it.