Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hui! Chai Come!

When we think of "fine dining", or a more upscale restaurant that we would want to take someone for a celebration (like a birthday dinner), we think of Italian restaurants and we think of Japanese restaurants, but we generally don't think of Vietnamese restaurants.   When we think of Vietnamese restaurants, we think of little hole in the wall, mom and pop places, often a little grungy if they are near Chinatown.   We think of good every day food, good warm you up when its cold food, or good family food.   Even my favorite, Pho One, which is very brightly lit and shiny, is generally more of an every day restaurant than a place for celebrations. 

Vietnamese restaurants here don't exactly exude "classiness", but that's not true everywhere. In San Francisco, one of my absolute favorite restaurants, is a little place called Crustacean.   Crustacean takes Vietnamese food to a whole other level.   To begin with, the An family that owns the restaurant, once belonged to the Vietnamese royal court.   So in creating the restaurant, they were trying to recreate the atmosphere and decor of a true royal banquet.   Their furnishings are not the generic things you find in most Vietnamese restaurants, like moving water pictures and pearl inlay lacquered paintings.  Instead you find intricate carvings and antique art pieces.   The food itself is sort of a fusion of western and Vietnamese flavors (as if Vietnamese cuisine didn't already have enough French influence).   My absolute favorite things there, are their special garlic noodles and their whole roasted dungeness crab.   Both the crab and their noodles are glazed in this sticky, sweet, caramelized garlic sauce that you literally keeps you licking your fingers while eating the crab.  Again, you've got those familiar Vietnamese flavors, but dressed up a little for the fancier setting.  It is one of my favorite dishes anywhere, and a fantastic place to enjoy a birthday dinner.

So being here in the islands (half an ocean closer to Vietnam), it's a little odd that we don't have a Vietnamese restaurant with equivalent stature.   We do however, have Thai restaurants that set the same gold standard.  This is in no small part due to places like Keo's, and Singha, and Chai's Island Bistro.   Keo's is the place that really introduced Thai cuisine to Hawaii.   With their beautiful orchids falling everywhere, and exotic Thai statues around every corner, it set the standard for fine Thai cuisine in Hawaii.  But in the same way the An family took Vietnamese food and fused it with Western tradition to create fine dining, Chai Chaowasaree is the master chef who transformed Thai food into the renowned fare at his island bistro.

Poor Chai ran into trouble with INS a couple of years ago.   It was stated that his marraige to his wife was a sham to get residency here.   Then while he was in danger of being deported, he went back to Thailand to visit his ailing father and almost wasn't going to be allowed back into the country.   It took intervention by Sen. Akaka himself to help Chai stay.   I remember the incident because my father-in-law and my dad had such completely opposing viewpoints on the issue.  My father-in-law thought that he should need to be accountable U.S. laws and regulations and shouldn't be given such special treatment.   My dad feeling that here was a very hard working honest guy, who was just trying to make a living and pursue the American dream, who the government was picking on for trying to visit his sick father.   Amazing how radically different the way people think.  But luckily, he was allowed to stay, and we have been able to continue to enjoy his culinary innovations.

Coconut Shrimp at Chai's Island Bistro

Probably the best dish at Chai's Island Bistro and the one that shows off his culinary insight is the appetizer sampler.   The coconut shrimp alone is such a marvelous dish.  Just look at how cool looking that thing is.  With all of that cruncy goodness swirled around those huge shrimp, it is like shrimp tempura taken to the 10th level.  It's a thing of beauty and the texture of all those swirls is just amazing.   His seared ahi katsu with curry is an enlightened take on what you'd normally expect from chicken katsu curry, but with the fresher flavor of seared ahi instead.   And crab cakes.   You know how hard it is to do crab cakes right, that preserve the crab flavor?   His are crunchy, crabby, and instead of topped with remoulade, he's substitued a refreshing mango salsa.  What a way to start off a meal.

Appetizer Sampler at Chai's Island Bistro

As for the main course, I elected to go with the osso bucco.    Here however, is one dish that was definitely done better at Sam Choy's.  While still amazingly fork tender, the sauce he uses is a bit overpowering.  It has an almost burnt, bitter taste to it.   If there is one complaint I have about Chai's though, is that while the An family used a lot more Vietnamese flavor combined with Western elegance, Chai doesn't maintain enough Thai flavor in his dishes.  Many of them taste just too Westernized.

Kurobuta Osso Bucco at Chai's Island Bistro

The best thing about going to Chai's though, is his amazing rotation of Hawaiian music luminaries.   I mean we are talking about headliners.   What the heck are such huge names as Hapa, Willie K, and the Brothers Cazimero doing playing background sets in a such small restaurant???   Somehow instead of hunting for up and coming local bands to play for him, he's convinced some of the biggest names in Hawaiian music to play every night!   Let me tell you something, it's an amazing honor to have Robert Cazimero sing Happy Birthday to you.   You feel like you're the President being sung to by Marilyn Monroe or something.  Because of all of the fantastic Hawaiian music, Chai's is the perfect place to take out of town guests, so that they can experience local food and local music. You also need to keep in mind that when you're paying the check, you're paying for dinner and a concert ticket, which makes the bill seem much more reasonable.

We're really lucky that Chai was able to stave off getting deported.   His contributions to our community, both culinary and otherwise, are well recognized.  But I am still waiting to see an upscale, elegant, Vietnamese restaurant, like Crustacean, here in the islands.  

1 comment:

  1. who can focus on that coconut shrimp when there is such a CUTE LITTLE BOY in that picture!!??? =)