The Life of Pai


Picture 2 of 8

Matcha-dusted halibut.

When I was working back in New York, when it was fall or winter, i’d almost never see daylight, remembers Kevin Lee, Chef of Pai. You can see, then, why he was drawn to the Pai space, a far cry from that, with all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and an open kitchen with a full view of the lanai. The restaurant is light-flooded and airy, a spacious hallway-like seating area set at a curvature against the Harbor Court lobby, where every seat feels like a window seat, and every chef can see every diner—and vice versa.

“The opportunity to have an open kitchen really drew me to the space,” says Lee, whose background includes an education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, stints at Michelin-starred spots in both New York and Hong Kong, and a stretch as chef de cuisine at Prima, in Kailua. “It’s pretty much being able to see the guests enjoy their experience—to see it in the moment.”

The result, of course, is an inclusivity, in which the artisans creating your food are a key part of the dining experience. And, while the PAI team prides themselves in keeping the restaurant warm, “unstuffy,” and appropriate for all occasions—from quick bites and cocktails, to a casual din- ner, to a celebratory meal—nowhere is that more true than at the tasting counter. Set right at the edge of the kitchen itself, it’s the perfect space for which the gem of PAI, the chef’s tasting menu, is presented.

The menu is a massive 10-plus assemblage of dishes, complete with the option of painstakingly selected wine pairings, and other luxurious accoutrements, like a seasonal three-course add-on of Ossetra caviar. Lee, who refreshes it every six weeks with seasonally inspired new dish- es, describes it as a “guided experience,” a solid few levels up from the restaurant’s four- or five-course prix-fixe menu offering. And an experience it is, with a definitive tone at the beginning and end, and a distinct progression that moves the diner through the parade of dishes with carefully developed transitions and variations. Like a play or a narrative, the courses beget each other in specific sequence, to the point of which you do not finish where you started, but rather picked your way across a plot with both surprises and delights, visual and flavor profiles, to get there. “Essentially,” says Lee, “we wanted to create ups and downs; contrasts.”

These steps through the chef’s menu are thoughtful and unhurried, much like Lee himself, who seems to consider each question deeply, and works at a gentle, even pace, whether he be pouring fragrant ti-leaf broth over an agedashi turnip cake, to explaining in careful detail the unexpected elements that compose each artfully plated concoction. (Think: perfectly moist, matcha-dusted halibut, alongside a succulent mousse-stuffed morel mushroom bite, and a study in asparagus in a variety of ways, including both as tips and as a purée.)

When we tried the menu, it started out subtle and reserved: new potato with aura of salt-crust, white fish purée and a hint of chili oil. Moving through brighter, more assertive flavors and focused experiments on luscious combinations of textures, took us to preserved lemon in a pea, mint and lamb-bacon ricotta gnudi and the perfectly satisfying crunch of a cannoli shell around a deluge of silky—but savory!— dashi mascarpone. By the end, however we found ourselves downright bombarded with sensory intensity: the richness of ultra-dark chocolate next to the delightfully deafening tang of liliko‘i curd, with a buttery almond cookie crumble mediating the delicious madness. And, throughout it all, were the wines: ultra-yeasty proseccos that have never been disgorged (à la champagnes), juicy cream-of-the-crop Chiantis from the oldest, or classico, area of the Chianti region, or a Sicilian white of an intriguing “indigenous varietal no one’s ever heard of.”

Since Lee updates the chef’s tasting menu offerings every month and a half, it’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it deal for many of his creations, but there’s one ingredient you’ll always find: Lee himself.

“I really wanted to have kind of a reflection of me and my background. I’m Chinese American but I’ve worked in New American, French, Italian, as well as some Indian. So I like to incorporate those kinds of things into a meal.” Furthermore, there’s a nostalgia in his work, an echo of something familiar and yet not, your childhood identity working copacetically— for once!—with the refined, elevated tastes of your adult self. Lee, for his part, spent his childhood eating dim sum and noodles while visiting his grandmother in San Francisco’s Chinatown. That influence shows up in his menus—with a twist.

The PAI take on dim sum for instance, is not your classic Chinese fare: an uni bechamel taro puff, scallop and abalone mushroom siu mai, and savory duck confit and foie gras jin dui. “We want to be able to have playful dishes that pull flavors and techniques from all over. It’s not your traditional taro puff. It’s not your traditional shumai. But the way it’s delivered, the taro puff itself is a vessel for us to put something that you wouldn’t expect inside.”

One diner couldn’t help exclaiming how the turnip cake reminded him exactly of the one his mother used to make—but with some additions, such as the housemade XO sauce that Lee includes in his. It reminded him, said the diner, of his childhood. Tapping into those intimate recollections—whether through aroma or flavor—fascinates Lee. “I really enjoy when people say that it reminds them of either this or that or their past or their childhood,” he muses. “Hopefully it brings up memories.”

PAI Honolulu 55 Merchant St., Ste. 110, 744- 2531 or

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites