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First Course

BY Lesa Griffith | August 28, 2017 | Feature Features

Kevin Lee's new restaurant, PAI Honolulu, is a promising addition to the downtown food scene.
A baby beet salad with salmon roe

INSIDE THE HARBOR Court condo’s soaring ground-level plaza—which always makes me think of the clinical Mount Olympus in the grade-Z 1980s film Clash of the Titans—is chef Kevin Lee’s long-awaited restaurant, PAI Honolulu. Tadpole Studio (which is behind the groundbreaking Hau‘oli Lofts now going up) has transformed the crescent-shaped space that was Umami Café into an airy blond-wood and slate-blue-accented room that is at once open and—like its fellow chef-driven spot, Senia—divided into different areas offering different dining experiences.

Lee came to O‘ahu in 2011 from New York to be the chef de cuisine of Prima, where he, with partners Alejandro Briceño and Lindsey Ozawa, put Kailua on the dining map with an Italian-accented menu. Since Prima was sold in 2014, Lee has been a culinary nomad—catering events and teaching knife-sharpening skills. His three years in the wilderness was spurred by one desire—to remain in Hawai‘i.

His mission has come together in Pai, a name that unites Lee’s Chinese heritage with his adopted home. The word means “plate” in Mandarin and is part of “ho‘opai,” which, in Hawaiian, means to uplift, inspire or raise up. The California native and CIA graduate worked at Floyd Cardoz’s pioneering Tabla and John Fraser’s vegcentric Dovetail in New York. At Prima, you could taste his experience and talent in his sleights of flavor and interest in stuff that grows in the ground.

At Pai, Lee and his team­—which notably includes sous-chef Ricky Goings, who added a new dimension to Sushi ii with his nightly cooked specials­—focus on surf and turf. In this case, turf actually means vegetables, not beef.

The toque does this through two menus—the five-course $65 prix fixe and the nine-course $135 chef’s tasting served at the counter facing the open kitchen. And at the bar and in a petite lounge area, you can order from an a la carte menu of haute small bites.

With so much anticipation, Pai has a lot to live up to. Visits during its first three weeks of existence revealed a place full of promise, but still finding its groove.

The restaurant has no investor—it is all Lee and his fiancee/manager, Justine Kadokawa, as well as friends—such as Ozawa—who pitch in to do everything from washing dishes to cooking on the line. The couple has assembled an attentive yet relaxed staff who in turn make you feel relaxed.

Harbor Court residents have an instant Cheers in their midst—head bartender Jessica Laidlaw, formerly of Kaka‘ako’s Bevy, has created a great cocktail menu and fine, welcoming team. You spot a bottle of Plymouth sloe gin behind the bar and crave a sloe gin fizz? You’ll get a good one. (If they add a happy hour, the bar will certainly become a prime pau hana spot.)

Photography Courtesy Of: