PAI Honolulu, chef Kevin Lee’s trendy downtown destination, celebrated its second anniversary last month, marking the occasion in many ways, including a revamped happy hour.
Lee is a chef with an unrivaled imagination when it comes to things culinary. His work of art on a plate, a cluster of humble carrots arranged over an orange brush stroke of carrot-miso puree, defined last year’s Palette fundraiser for the Honolulu Museum of Art. The dish was inspired by an ink brush and stand on display in the museum’s China Gallery. So you can see how his brain works.
Those intimidated by such artsy approaches to food can ease their way in through PAI’s happy hour, which lets you dabble in the most approachable parts of the menu.
PAI is a graceful, sophisticated space at the entry to Harbor Court. Floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall follow the curve of the building’s circular atrium, opening up the compact space and filling it with natural light during happy hour.
Blue-gray accent walls set off light wood features and a sleek white bar that links a small lounge area to the main dining room.
Pau hana is served 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, in the lounge and at the bar.
The keynote plate is Lee’s charcuterie set ($35). The chef ramped up for PAI’s second birthday by teaching himself the technique of curing meats — and it was a ramp-up; some meats take nine months to properly age.
The set features four examples of Lee’s work. They might include lamb merguez (a North African sausage), finocchiona (Italian pork and fennel sausage), Spanish chorizo and/or Italian-style salami, bologna or pepperoni. Circling the meat plate are dishes of pickles, nuts, fruit, popcorn, sourdough crisps and a subtle ricotta cheese with honey.
This choice, perhaps PAIred with a whiskey flight tuned to the day’s charcuterie selections, would be a fine introduction to Lee’s meticulous and artful nature.
My preference, though, is a deeper dive into the pau hana specials, which run $2 to $3 cheaper than they do outside the magic hour.
The scene-stealer is a tartine of roasted vegetables ($15), a chunk of toast topped with a bright green pea spread, then layers of tomatoes, baby carrots, radishes and maitake mushrooms. It’s a light delight, full of color, with a savory backbone.
Jalapeno Popper Focaccia ($7) is an explosion of sour, spicy and sweet, with sliced pickled peppers baked into a melty blend of mozzarella and whipped cream cheese. Some arugula over the top gives it a bit of bite. Big, colorful shrimp chips ($6) come with a sprightly horseradish creme fraiche that will have you double dipping.
Fried oyster mushrooms ($14) have a similar addictive quality, the mushrooms are first slow-cooked confit- style in olive oil, then coated and fried to a perfect state of crunch. They’re served with another creme fraiche revelation, this one loaded with black pepper.
Another fave: a trio of albondigas, Spanish meatballs, served with a light but spicy salad of arugula and shaved radishes ($12) is intense in flavor and flat-out delicious.
A dry-aged burger ($19) is a worthy choice if your tastes run beefy. If you’re inclined to go high-end, though, I’d suggest the foie gras French toast ($28), an ingenious concoction that will confuse your brain with its mix of sweet and savory. It definitely delivers on the sweet with strawberries and coconut powder, but savory might just win out — the maple syrup is cut with shoyu, and the foie gras topping brings it all home.
Bar manager Joe Arakawa is not a fan of froufrou. Don’t expect a cocktail here loaded down with an umbrella and fruits on sticks. His four happy hour cocktails ($8 to $9) are true to their base spirits, classically designed, yet all bear his signature.
I took a bullet for the team and tried at least a sip of them all — a margarita flavored with basil, the PAI old-fashioned, a bittersweet Cynar Southside (made with herbal Cynar liqueur, which counts artichokes among its ingredients), and my top choice, Arakawa’s chili gimlet (drank the whole glass of this one). The classic gin drink is re-envisioned here with St. George Green Chile Vodka and lime juice. It’s fresh and refreshing.
Beer on draft is $5 for the Breakside Wanderlust IPA; $9 for a local seasonal selection. Bottled pilsner, stout and pineapple cider are $6 to $8.
Wine is $7 to $10, including a La Maison de Grand Esprit sparkling.
You can see by the prices that this is not a happy hour of super- cheap drinks and discount fried food. PAI is a showcase for creativity, and this menu of specials is a good introduction. You could well be impressed enough to come back when you’re flush, for the chef’s tasting menu.
Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St.
Happy hour: 5 -6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
>> Jalapeno Popper Focaccia, $7
>> Chicken-Fried Oyster Mushrooms, $14
>> Charcuterie set, $35
>> Draft IPA, $5
>> Chili gimlet, $8
>> Wine, $7-$10