These days, if you talk to chef Alan Takasaki about Le Bistro, his restaurant that has been serving French-inspired cuisine since 2001, his topic of choice isn’t the technicalities of the menu or the sourcing of local ingredients. It’s "the kids," Kaiser High School seniors he employs each year.
"It’s really fun to work with the young ones," said Takasaki, 57. "They have a different kind of energy. Their eyes are so wide open; they’re very pure.
"The best part is whatever they do, they try to do their best just for the sake of doing it properly. They still hear their parents’ voices in their heads."
Le Bistro has been voted People’s Choice Best Restaurant for 2015. It is the second time the restaurant has taken this ‘Ilima Award; the first was in 2013.
MORE PEOPLE’S CHOICES
Takasaki’s experience with teen staff began several years ago with one youth, who brought in seven or eight friends.
"He was a good kid, and he brought in a good line" of student workers.
Since then, as Takasaki’s young staffers graduate and leave for college or move on to other jobs, they provide him with a continual stream of friends as replacements. The chef assigns each of his cooks a student worker, who starts out by being "an extra set of arms."
"We take them as far as they’re capable," he said, and some eventually perform cooking duties.
The ever-changing staffing situation is a challenge for Takasaki, who values consistency in his dishes above all else. While the restaurant offers nightly specials, his standard menu has remained virtually untouched, with a couple of favored specials added in "very slowly" from year to year.
The chef says his regular patrons have come to count on their favorite dishes, among them the beef quartet, rack of lamb, wine-braised short ribs, ahi tartare, French onion soup and apple tarte Tatin.
A new item on the regular menu is an upscale surf and turf featuring A5 wagyu beef, wild Alaska halibut, butter-poached lobster with tomato fondue and a foie gras burger. Takasaki says A5 wagyu is a rarefied experience — for both cooks and diners.
"In the kitchen we all gather around when it comes in; we love to look at it in its raw state because it’s practically white" from all the marbling, he said. "When people taste the A5 for the first time, they’re really pleased with it. We don’t offer a big piece because it’s really rich, but those few bites are an experience. The surf and turf is our biggest seller."
It’s a testament to Takasaki and his staff that Le Bistro’s "regulars" continue to grow — "Our clientele is now multigenerational; the kids who came in with their parents still come in as adults" — even as the chef welcomes a new crew of teens each year.
"I told one kid, ‘Go get a rack of veal chops,’ and he brought back lamb chops. I sent him back and he brought a rack of pork chops. I sent him back again and he brought ribs. I think he was trying to find anything with bones!
"It’s humorous," he said of first encounters with the newbies.
What he is serious about is teaching them proper skills. "Since they’re so young, once they learn to do things correctly, they can do everything that way because it’s all they know," he said.
It pays off in the restaurant, but that’s not Takasaki’s goal. He encourages those with particular drive and talent to move on to the mainland, and he’s "lost the really good ones" to restaurants in California and Las Vegas. He’s careful about how he counsels them, tailoring his advice to each individual.
His thoughtfulness has roots in his own early career, working at prestigious restaurants in big cities. "Tons of eager cooks wanted to get into particular restaurants, and the owners and chefs all knew it. They’d have 100 resumes on the desk. There was not a lot of guidance; there was a lot of fear," he said.
At the same time, he encountered "great guys" in humble positions who took tremendous pride in their work. "They would give you a hard time if you didn’t do things properly."
Takasaki says if he had the kind of restaurant that drew 100 resumes, "I would still pick the kids."
And in the way that life works, it seems the kids in turn have helped their mentor evolve.
"I have had my moments," Takasaki said when asked if he ever inspires fear in the kitchen. "Now it’s all about having patience."
— Joleen Oshiro / firstname.lastname@example.org
Niu Valley Shopping Center
5730 Kalanianaole Highway; 373-7990
FINE DINING | Sarento’s
Sarento’s satisfies by means of its elegant setting, remarkable views and generous, timeless menu choices, calculated to impress special-occasion diners as well as cosmopolitan locals and business-account warriors.
It’s an elegant throwback of an restaurant, set up high to provide 360 degrees of remarkable views, including the ocean and Ala Wai Harbor, with carpeted rooms and linen-covered tables.
Diners reserve months in advance to get a view of Waikiki’s Friday evening fireworks from the restaurant, but fiery sunset views provide a show year-round.
Dress to impress and enjoy generous plates of Italian food with accents from the Pacific. Highlights include fresh oysters with a lilikoi mignonette, caprese salad made with Kamuela tomatoes, and local fish, along with decadent entrees including osso buco, rack of lamb and filet mignon, served up with good cheer and good manners by a diligent staff.
Ilikai Hotel, 1777 Ala Moana Blvd.; 955-5559
NEW RESTAURANT | Livestock Tavern
Livestock opened in late 2014 to immediate clamor; the restaurant owners, who also operate Lucky Belly across the street, already had credibility with Honolulu diners for serving tasty, trendy food in a hip but friendly setting, and they did not squander it.
Livestock creates a contrast with Lucky Belly; the name is in line with the rustic/Americana trend, and the food is East Coast-inspired, with a lobster roll as standard lunch fare.
Since its opening, Livestock has made a few concessions to local enthusiasms, such as pasta with uni (called sea urchin at Livestock), but its draw is largely the juicy burgers, prime rib and scallops, served in large portions and with panache.
Call ahead days in advance to get a coveted reservation, or be here as the doors open for seats allotted to walk-ins.
49 N. Hotel St., Chinatown; 537-2577
Lunch, dinner. $$-$$$
LUNCH | The Pig & the Lady
Since opening in November 2013, the dining room of this popular Chinatown venue, headed up by award-winning chef Andrew Le, has hardly had a lull.
A variety of fresh salad and noodle dishes shows off Le’s artistry, inspired by Vietnamese flavors and the recipes of his mother, Loan Le. Each dish offers a balance of sweet and sour, and spicy and salty flavors, punctuated by contrasts in textures.
The kitchen uses local proteins — Shinsato pork and Hawaii Lowline Cattle beef — in such noodle delicacies as Bun Bo Hue, a hearty bowl of pork belly, brisket, calamansi, satay and banana blossom in a pork and lemon grass broth; and Pho Mazemen, beef and tendon with roasted peanut-chili satay, fermented mustard cabbage and temomi noodles. The P&L Pho is a popular classic with smoked bacon, 12-hour brisket, soft egg, Tokyo negi and fried shallots in beef pho broth.
The lunch menu also includes sandwiches and rice plates. Sandwiches are all about the dip: Pho French Dip, Porchetta Dip and Lemongrass Tofu Dip, a vegetarian offering. Rice lovers can pick from coconut curry, and Ikura and Pickled Ogo Donburi, featuring chicken-fat rice.
The dining room is both cool respite from the tropical heat and a space with a cool vibe, thanks to a contemporary design that embellishes the classic brick walls with recycled metal and wood. Le’s personally selected playlist fills the air with lively music that nurtures a warm, convivial experience.
Lunch: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
83 N. King St.; 585-8255
Lunch $$ (dinner $$$)
BREAKFAST | Cinnamon’s Restaurant
Since opening in Kailua in 1985, Cinnamon’s has satisfied those looking for a great breakfast served all day. The restaurant offers more than just breakfast, but to order anything else would be a shame.
Perhaps it’s the friendly staff and homey environment that attract praise, but more likely it’s the signature crabcake eggs Benedict with home fries. This savory dish is loaded with crabmeat set atop a grilled English muffin — the crunchy texture pairs wonderfully with the crab and the sauce.
The sauce! Whoever makes the hollandaise here should be considered a Kailua treasure.
The most popular dish here is pancakes blanketed with guava chiffon syrup and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. The Red Velvet pancakes are also a must-have.
A second location, at the Ilikai Hotel, has a different menu but still offers some favorites from the original. But be aware that breakfast ends there at 2 p.m.
315 Uluniu St., Kailua, 261-8724
Ilikai Hotel, 1777 Ala Moana Blvd., 670-1915
Breakfast, lunch. $$
CASUAL | Kalapawai Cafe
Kalapawai Cafe appeals to a wide swath of diners, with entrees that range from kid-friendly cheese pizza to a dressed-up, thick-cut pork chop that creates competition with some of the best, chef-driven bistros on the island.
It’s a casual coffee shop and deli until dinnertime, when akamai diners pack the house to enjoy fresh fish, a half-pound wagyu burger or Jidori chicken, along with an extensive wine collection.
Vegetable dishes aren’t an afterthought, either, with potato gnocchi, vegetable stew and cannellini bean tapenade bruschetta among the offerings.
The cafe sits pretty at the entrance to Kailua, for those coming from town, and it’s worth a drive, serving as a gathering place and justly placed source of community pride.
750 Kailua Road, Kailua; 262-3354
Breakfast, lunch, dinner. $-$$$
NEIGHBOR ISLAND | Da Kitchen
Even beefy bruddahs leave Da Kitchen in Kahului with leftovers, but huge portions aren’t the only reason there’s usually a line to get into this casual Maui restaurant.
Da Kitchen has elevated the local-style plate lunch with quality, island ingredients, consistent preparation and appealing presentation.
The diverse menu includes burgers, sandwiches, salads, ono noodles, fresh fish and deep-fried Spam musubi. Favorites: hot and crispy chicken katsu, meaty kalbi ribs from Maui Cattle Co., heaping Hawaiian plates and airy mahimahi tempura.
Six kinds of "mocos" are offered, including the aptly named Polynesian Paralysis Moco with fish tempura, kalua pork, two eggs, onions, mushrooms and gravy over fried rice served in a bowl the size of a wash basin. (If visiting Maui’s south shore, get takeout at Da Kitchen Express in the Rainbow Mall in Kihei, also open for breakfast.)
425 Koloa St., No. 104, Kahului; 871-7782
Lunch, dinner. $$