I never would have heard about Pah Ke's except for some friends who come regularly to Kailua, over the ridge from Honolulu, and instructed me in no uncertain terms to go there. Although it looks like an ordinary Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, its chef and owner Raymond Siu, they told me, does the most creative things with the produce of local farms. The restaurant does not have a wine list, but it has plenty of wineglasses and Siu doesn't mind at all if you bring your own bottle.
Guidebooks seldom mention the restaurant because it's in Kaneohe, the town adjacent to Kailua, where President Barack Obama stays on his Hawaiian vacations. There are no resorts in this corner of Oahu to accommodate visitors, only house and condo rentals, and it's a half-hour drive from the big hotels in Waikiki. Even my cousin Shawn, the coffee guru, who lives in Honolulu and who likes to brag that he's been to every good restaurant in Honolulu, hadn't been there until my wife and I took him and his girlfriend to Pah Ke's for dinner last week.
All that probably makes Raymond Siu the most underrated chef in Hawaii. He follows the modern philosophy of local, local, local, and applies it to Chinese cuisine updated with elements of other Asian cultures. That's what separates him from most of the other practitioners of what has come to be known as Modern Hawaiian Cuisine, who largely apply Hawaiian touches to a western approach to food. (To learn about another of Hawaii's best chefs, read about my recent return visit to Chef Mavro, where chef George Mavrothalassitis brings French cooking skills to the island's local ingredients.)
The regular menu at Pah Ke's looks pretty much like a typical pan-Chinese menu, emphasis on southern China. There are a few "house specialties" that hint at the creativity possible here, but the best approach is to decide on a price per person and let Raymond choose what's best. It requires some trust, but in my experience the confidence will be repaid several times over.
His opening salvo on our first visit last week is a perfect example. He reinvented the elements of the familiar Chinese moo-shu dish, a stir-fry of finely cut meat and cabbage originally meant to be wrapped in a thin, soft pancake. He baked the pancake to make it crisp and flat, and topped it with the moo-shu vegetables and dabs of fresh Puna goat cheese, a perfect companion for the Champagne we brought to start.
Kumu—a delicate local fish—with baby bok choy at Pah Ke's
One of the most memorable dishes in that dinner was slices of wagyu beef (not local; most Hawaiian beef is grass-fed and needs too much additional aging, said Siu) in the soft, slightly sweet handmade buns he usually serves with Peking duck. That went well with the Chassagne-Montrachet red we brought.
For dinner this time, I brought two bottles-another Champagne and a Bethel Heights Pinot Noir Willamette Valley West Block 2005-and asked Siu to make a menu at around $35 that focused on local ingredients. Here's what we got:
Fresh ahi tuna salad with soy ginger lime dressing, fresh herbs, nicely served in a martini glass; Chinese "lion's head" meatballs with locally grown king mushroom sauté; kumu (a very delicate local white-fleshed fish), steamed with baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms; and my favorite, big fresh scallops stir-fried with asparagus in a dried scallop and chile pepper sauce, topped with crisp fried local spinach. Dessert was a chocolate cake with a remarkably refined, delicate panna cotta made from soy milk and vanilla bean. (Siu made his living as a pastry chef for a while.)
The Pinot, as you might expect, liked the meatballs best, but it tasted just fine with the seafood dishes too. I chalk that up to the depth and intensity of Siu's sauces.
Scallops with local spinach, asparagus and sambal
It was a rainy midweek evening, business was slow, and Siu had time to chat about how he got here. Born in China, he worked in Japan and England as a nautical engineer before settling in Hawaii, where much of his family had emigrated. With no formal training in cooking, he got jobs in some of the best kitchens in Honolulu, including Michel's, Roy's, Alan Wong's and Chef Mavro, before he, a brother and his wife opened Pah Ke's 10 years ago. It's still something of an insider's find, probably because most of its customers still drop in looking for chow mein and moo-shu pork, not the refined, elevated cuisine the kitchen is capable of producing.
And, if you have a nice bottle of wine in hand, Siu can make it sing with his food. And no corkage.
46-018 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe, HI 96744
Telephone: (808) 235-4505
Cost: Entrées, $7.50 to $19
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — December 13, 2010 3:33pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 13, 2010 3:52pm ET
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — December 14, 2010 1:20am ET
Harrison Chung — Honolulu, Hawaii — December 14, 2010 12:53pm ET
Christopher Dunn — Hawaii — January 6, 2011 12:40am ET
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