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Pork tenderloin bao buns

Three’s the Charm

by Mari Taketa | Photography by Linny Morris | Hawai'i magazine | July 9, 2013

A sense of theater has been injected back into Honolulu’s dining scene. Over in the tony Pacifica Honolulu, the ceilings soar; dramatic stacked-stone walls set off an army of luminescent orbs like so many dancing jellyfish; and as dinner hour approaches, the entire scene glows behind a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. The resto? None other than chef Chai Chaowasaree’s new eatery, the simply, and eponymously, named Chef Chai.

Before you think of the Thai toque’s former digs at Aloha Tower Marketplace—Chai’s Island Bistro—this is a whole new Chai. Gone is the tropical Southeast Asian vibe. Also missing is the tradition of live serenades by The Brothers Cazimero, Makaha Sons and other Hawaiian music headliners.

Instead, Chai’s third and latest restaurant—he opened Waikīkī’s Singha Thai in the ’80s and Chai’s Island Bistro in the ’90s—is all about glam. The space is long and narrow, starting with a sleek bar at the entry, where Chaowasaree often greets guests himself. From there, rows of tables parade across a dining room anchored by a baby grand piano in the far corner, next to a private room curtained off by lengths of shimmering dividers. Lānai seating above the sidewalk is accented by architectural heat lamps (a charming, yet unexpected, continental touch—perfect for the cooler months.) Then there’s the superb view, a juxtaposition of Honolulu’s urban landscape against the verdant Ko‘olau mountains. In the fading daylight, the sight is indeed splendid and arguably one of Honolulu’s most atmospheric.

It’s no wonder, in part, that the eatery is already drawing an array of diners. On any given night the crowd ranges from businesspeople seguing from late-afternoon meetings to early dinners to 30-somethings catching up over pau hana cocktails and pūpū to concertgoers seeking an upscale meal before heading across the street to the Neal Blaisdell Center.

What guests find should likely please. Chef Chai’s menu, an updated reorchestration of straightforward fusion fare from the former Island Bistro, abounds with seafood and vegetables. Butter is absent, and fried treatments are scarce; although meaty favorites like the osso buco and Mongolian lamb chops remain. Likewise, Chai’s famed oxtail soup—his featured dish at the last Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival—has earned a spot on the new menu, too. The wine list is heavily New World, with small selections of imported, domestic and local beers.

During my multiple visits, my guests and I agree that the setting is perfect for lingering. We order cocktails. After a few sips, none of us can get past the East in Eden, a citrusy, barely sweet concoction of gin, prosecco and elderflower liqueur created by veteran Bar Manager Anthony Murata, and we end up ordering it each time. It pairs well with the ‘ahi tartare: fresh, barely seasoned mince poking out of petit, paper-thin waffle cones, each no bigger than a man’s thumb. During a follow-up visit, we actually tasted our way through a selection of appetizers, including pork tenderloin bao buns, a straightforward treatment of soft slices accompanied by dabs of hoisin sauce; a filling souffle of eggplant and zucchini in a mild tomato-basil sauce; a lightly flavored, gluten-free bisque of pureed butternut squash and lobster; and tender sake-braised baby abalone with an unexpected kick of curry.

Among the entrees, the grilled New Zealand salmon tempts. The treatment is updated from an older version: the filet caramelized in a sweet soy kabayaki glaze and topped with sheaths of spicy grilled pineapple. The rich flavors cry out for rice, which accompanies all entrees in small bowls on the side. (Opt for the nutty brown rice.) A simpler option is the vegetable terrine—layers of cooked and raw asparagus, peppers, zucchini and sweet potato pressed together in strips of eggplant and served on a sea of green curry sauce.

With the abundance of lighter fare, perhaps the most pleasant part of dining at Chef Chai is that you can indulge your taste buds largely guilt-free, sating your appetite without ever feeling weighed down. (That is, if you abstain from those lamb chops.) Of course, you may want to leave room for dessert.

Chef Chai
Pacifica Honolulu
1009 Kapi‘olani Blvd.
Kaka‘ako

585.0011
chefchai.com

Hours
Dinner, 4-11pm, daily; happy hour, 9-11pm, daily

Cost
Starters, $12-$35; salads and soups, $10-$12; entrees, $19-$39; desserts, $7-$9

Parking
After 4pm, you can park by valet only.

Who’s There
When the doors open, find downtown business types and preshow diners ready to head across the street to Neal Blaisdell Center. As the sun sets, dressed-up 30-somethings start rolling in.

Where to Sit
The main dining room is gorgeously modern. But feel free to switch it up and sit outside while the world goes by on Kapi‘olani Boulevard.

Dish It Up
Lighter fare is the rule here. Try the New Zealand salmon in kabayaki sauce, the ‘ahi tartare in waffle cones and the eggplant and zucchini souffle.

Sip Service
The wine menu definitely leans New World. The cocktails, created by Anthony Murata, are well worth exploring. The must-have: the East in Eden.