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Best Restaurant: Pai Honolulu reflects Kevin Lee’s devotion to his craft

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Pai Honolulu chef and owner Kevin Lee arranges a dish of grilled tako and watermelon.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Pai Honolulu chef and owner Kevin Lee arranges a dish of grilled tako and watermelon.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The finished dish of grilled tako and watermelon exemplifies chef Kevin Lee’s attention to detail.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The finished dish of grilled tako and watermelon exemplifies chef Kevin Lee’s attention to detail.

PAI HONOLULU

Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St.; 744-2531. Dinner. $$$-$$$$

People are often easily characterized as left-brain or right-brain thinkers. The right-brained are said to be best at expressive and creative tasks, while left-brained individuals are described as being more logical and analytical. Educators will tell you chefs generally fall into the right-brain category.

On rare occasion, there’s a harmonic merger of creative and analytical thought, and the result is a restaurant like Pai Honolulu, which delivers all the conviviality, hospitality and satisfaction diners expect, while also serving as something of a laboratory for chef/owner Kevin Lee and his crew as they strive to expand their culinary skills, knowledge and repertoire.

It’s a combination well suited to the vagaries of the restaurant business, and to diners more focused on price point than in creative endeavors. While the artiste may whine about being misunderstood until closing day, for Lee success has come from coolly discerning what customers want and tweaking his original format to fit expectations, without compromising his craft.

And that’s saying a lot because, from the restaurant’s design to the work in the kitchen, no shortcuts are taken at Pai. The word “easy” is not in Lee’s vocabulary. From happy hour pupu to the seasonal chef’s tasting menu, every plate delivers something special, due to his meticulous nature. He takes the craft of creating artisanal cuisine seriously and didn’t even want to offer sandwiches until he learned to bake the bread himself.

What all this means for diners is that those who simply want to relax over a great-tasting meal will get that. But it’s also a place for those who appreciate finesse, and the time and labor that goes into every sauce, relish, compote, bread and pate made from scratch. If you’re the type eager to indulge your inner nerd to discuss the merits of a 90-day dry-aged steak vs. 180-day aged, the wonders of a 65-degree cooked egg, or how to turn aloe vera into ice cream, chances are Lee has been there, done that.

Although he is constantly challenging himself, he asks nothing from diners other than to eat and enjoy.

Lee grew up in San Francisco cooking alongside his mom and grandmother, but never thought it might lead to a career. “I did have a passion for music, but by junior or senior year in high school I knew it wasn’t going to pan out,” he said.

He entered the University of California at Davis without a major in mind, but became hooked on the science of transforming basic ingredients into different forms of food after taking a course in food science and nutrition. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in that discipline, which prepares graduates for work in fields such as food manufacturing and research.

But after working for a while, “I realized it wasn’t what I was looking for,” he said. “I enjoyed the science in the classroom, but I also wanted to learn the creative side and apply the science.”

It was back to school again, this time at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he said three-week courses were very focused on all subjects, from cold prep to fish butchering. Mastery of knowledge and techniques were required to progress from level to level.

Students were also required to work at the school’s New York City restaurants, taking on assignments in both kitchen and front of the house, and Lee said he enjoyed every aspect, including waiting on tables and talking to customers, knowing even then he wanted to own a restaurant one day.

From there, he honed his skills working in such top New York establishments as Tabla, a fine-dining Indian restaurant, and Oceana, an upscale seafood establishment, before ending up as sous-chef at the Michelin-starred Dovetail restaurant. There, he said, chef John Fraser ran a regimented kitchen, but welcomed ideas for its elaborate tasting menus from his staff.

“He’d ask, ‘Why don’t you come up with a dish? What can we do to get better?’ We’d have round-table discussions with staff once a month.”

After a while, Lee realized his options in New York were limited. He was already working for one of the best restaurants in the city and there was no room for him to advance because no one at Dovetail was leaving.

On Fraser’s recommendation he went to Hong Kong to learn more about contemporary Chinese cooking at Bo Innovation, which specializes in a playful modern approach to Cantonese cuisine. On returning to the United States in 2011, he stopped to visit friends in Hawaii. They directed him to an opening for a chef de cuisine at Prima.

Eventually, Prima sought to expand to Kakaako, but when plans fell through, Lee continued to search on his own, and after about four years of looking for the perfect spot, opened the doors to Pai Honolulu in the atrium of Harbor Court in summer 2017. His love of a challenge had extended to his selection of the space. He was drawn to the semi-circular architecture.

“My friends knew it was something I would do. I’m not afraid of a challenge, it’s just that it takes a little more work. An arc is hard to work with. Most construction is rectangular. When you’re working with an arc everything needs to be faceted and when you create a design section by section it can be chunky looking. The design of the restaurant, the counter, everything had to be curved.

“I’m really happy with the look of the space. I knew it would have to be modern looking, a visual representation of my style of cooking — modern, clean minimalism. I don’t like having too many different things on a plate. Within one dish there may be 10 components, but visually, it may look very simple. Simple is definitely not always easy.”

Pai opened with many ideas and formats in place, including a bar lounge, set dinner menus and a chef’s table tasting menu. It was too much for diners accustomed to having their own way rather than be required to sit down to a lengthy set dinner.

“We were keeping an open mind to what guests wanted. People said they just wanted to come in for a drink and an entree. They didn’t want to spend 1-1/2 to two hours over a full-course menu. We definitely changed within the first six months. We took out the prix fixe menu to offer more of an a la carte menu.”

Diners today have the option of lunch Wednesdays to Fridays, happy hour 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, a la carte dinners or the chef’s tasting menu. Menu highlights include buttermilk chicken-fried oyster mushrooms, foie gras French toast and 12-hour smoked beef brisket.

In addition, Lee presents special events such as “A Culinary Voyage to India,” at 5:45 p.m. Oct. 29, a dinner inspired by his exploration of India’s cuisine at Tabla. Cost is $65, or $95 with wine pairings.

“It’s been a learning experience on all fronts. We’re pushing the limits on dry-aging. Our beef tartare is dry-aged and our beef burger is made from 100% 90-day dry-aged beef.”

And not many contemporary chefs/restaurateurs have the patience or resources to wait 18 months or more for charcuterie made in-house, which is just beginning to come to Lee’s tables.

“It’s like being in a classroom, with the opportunity to do everything we want to try. I’m going down the rabbit hole with bread. It’s interesting to see what can be done with limited amounts of ingredients while thinking about the guest experience.”

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