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Restaurant pops open with big flavor

By Nadine Kam

LAST UPDATED: 2:25 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

In the olden days of journalism, finding an audience was difficult. You had to build a portfolio of clips to convince an editor you were worth publishing.

These days anyone can claim published-writer status and an audience through blogs and link-sharing via Twitter and Facebook. The notion that information and ideas yearn to be free has quashed the status quo for many an industry, from books to music to media.

But where industry still relies on the physical and tangible, many of the old rules still apply, though that too is evolving.

Take the process of becoming a name-recognized chef. One must pay a lot of dues before anyone with dollars is willing to turn over the keys to the kitchen.

That's the frustration Andrew Le felt, with his head full of flavor profiles and ideas but with no outlet for his culinary creativity.

With his training at the Culinary Institute of America, he landed at Chef Mavro where he said he appreciated the rigors of the kitchen and recipe testing. But he longed to find his own style.

Enter Martha Cheng, an alumnus of the Pineapple Room and a food writer for Honolulu Weekly.

She believed in Le's talent so much that one day they were talking about pop-up restaurants, and next thing you know, she set out to find a venue to showcase his food.

She found it with Henry "Hank" Adaniya, who is known for his ability to spot new talent. Adaniya was willing to turn over the keys to Hank's Haute Dogs three nights a week for Le's and Cheng's pop-up, The Pig & the Lady, open for reservations Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Ask either one who is the pig and who is the lady and you'll get a different answer. You'll also hear about the third lady, Le's mom, Loan Le, who might pop in herself to create one of her own specialties.

I'm going with Andrew as the Pig, not because he eats a lot, but he was born in the year of the pig and even has the animal tattooed onto his right bicep.

The Pig & The Lady is an experiment on many levels. While Le tests his ideas, he and Cheng are also taking measure of the marketplace.

While enjoying one of their introductory dinners, another food writer asked me whether I thought diners would support their concept, and I told her I didn't know.

For one thing, I think a pop-up tends to attract a younger crowd that might not have as much money to spend as an older, more traditional crowd that could be less inclined to favor the experimental.

Seeing the concept unfold is exciting.

As Cheng says, "I talk to a lot of chefs who say they wish they could cook something different, and a lot of eaters say the same thing, that they wish there were something different out there. After hearing the same thing over and over, I wanted to do something about it, and this is the only way I know how."

The inaugural menu focuses on the flavors of Southeast Asia, combining aspects of Le's Vietnamese upbringing with his experience working in fine-dining kitchens.

"It's the only kind of identification I have with my Vietnamese heritage because I can't speak the language," Le said.

The menu is not traditional, however, which led to many a battle with his mother.

He said his mom, a good cook in her own right, had fits watching him cook, telling him, "No Vietnamese would ever, ever do this."

So she was relieved to see people not only enjoying themselves, but praising his cuisine.

The introductory menu, which should be available for a month, started with nairagi sashimi layered with an Asian pear and banana blossom salad in kaffir lime sauce.

This was followed by vegetables encircled with a curry sauce, subtle at first, but with a kick of cayenne that grew more intense with each bite.

The veggies included a well-chosen combination of maitake mushrooms sautéed with garlic and snow peas, crunchy jicama sticks with thin-sliced onion, and a slice of pickled lotus root and jasmine rice croquettes on the side. There was perfect balance to the dish in both flavor and texture.

The entree comprised medallions of pork loin wrapped in betel, or la lot leaves, served with a refreshing salad of watermelon and dragon fruit spiked with cilantro and a dressing of ginger nuoc mam, all sitting on thick slices of green papaya and capped with crunchy pork cracklings.

The pork was dressed with pork jus flavored with garlic, shallot and shrimp paste.

An updated menu will feature braised pork belly with turnips and a poached quail egg.

Next came Loan Le's traditional Northern Vietnamese-style pho of brisket and tendon in a mild beef broth, starting with beef bones simmered for eight hours.

At this point, diners were satiated, but with about 10 minutes of resting time, we were ready to squeeze in dessert. It's worth saving space for coconut pandan toast, the toast topped with pandan-and-coconut curd, lychee halves and vanilla ice cream, served with lilikoi sauce spiked with basil seeds.

As for what's next, the nature of a pop-up is that no one really knows. They'll keep it running as long as people show interest, and the menu will flower with Le's growth and whims.

"To some people a pop-up may seem silly or unimportant," Le said, "but for me it's personal. The whole point of it is an exploration of what kind of food I want to create. I hope to make some good food, I hope people like it and I hope other young, creative chefs will follow."


Nadine Kam's restaurant column appears every Wednesday. Email her at

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