Play with your food. It’s the diametrical opposite of dining table etiquette yet it’s executive chef Aaron Lopez’s sole mission—his raison d’être.
Silkie chicken with oat, achiote and black garlic. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
“As cooks and chefs, we have a responsibility to take a product and push it as far as it can go,” he says. “We know that a beet tastes great when roasted, but let’s explore what else it can do.” And thus began the mission of Heihō House, which opened last fall amid the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic.
Dry-aged kampachi belly is grilled on the binchotan and serves as a vessel for miso. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
Inside Heihō House. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
Excellent food is not in short supply in Honolulu, but Lopez and his team are purpose-driven to push the bounds—to explore uncharted culinary territory. “Each product deserves to be celebrated,” he says. “Let’s explore how we can take a product and make it do things it didn’t know it could do.” Adds general manager Christopher De Leon, “We want to challenge [diners] to step outside of their comfort zone. To have their minds opened to a larger world of flavor combinations.”
Smelt with mulberries and curry. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
In an effort to keep the dining experience fresh and exciting, the master of reinvention dishes out new menus every few weeks. “A lot of times people go out to eat and order something they know will taste good—a dish that won’t let them down,” Lopez notes. “At Heihō, the objective is to remove guests from their comfort zone and to give them a truly unique experience,” he counters. “Some guests leave delighted and intrigued, others confused or even bothered, but at least we sparked an emotion.”
The restaurant’s decor. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
The chef plays on that emotion for Heihō House’s first anniversary celebration with a menu rife with nostalgia, featuring past favorites, but all—naturally—reimagined to spark renewed interest. Of those to take a victory lap, Lopez keeps the dishes close to the vest, but cheekily hints, “I consider it more of a B-side than a greatest hits.”
Bruised Knuckles, a reimagined highball with Heihō House’s Maker’s Mark private select, peppercorn and black vinegar. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
Unsurprisingly, the bar program at Heihō House is equally as eclectic as the fare. “I run the bar at Heihō not just to provide drinks or food,” says bar manager Gabriel Keller, “but to rekindle the feeling of excitement and curiosity—to experience something new and to have fun.” Gotos count The Burning Tea House, a riff on an Old-Fashioned, and the Dragon’s Eye, a gin-based drink that plays on a lychee martini. But when asked to name a personal favorite, Keller is adamant: “Choosing my favorite drink would be as hard as choosing a favorite child—it changes by the minute.”
Skim to None with amazake, sandalwood and orange blossom. PHOTO BY MICHELLE MISHINA.
For Heihō House’s future, Lopez, interestingly, looks to its past. “We built, planned and organized Heihō during a pandemic, which forced a lot of restrictions. Now approaching a year and seeing all that we have done with these limitations, we have only scratched the surface,” he says. “It’s about how much more we can dream up to create an avant-garde dining experience. How can we remove people from their daily lives and for a brief moment let them live in a fantasy world that we’ve created?” Only time and imagination will tell. 1127 11th Ave., Honolulu, @heiho_house