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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 11, 2002

Food at Chai's Island Bistro a bit short on pizazz

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Popular chef Chai Chaowasaree's Aloha Tower spot has a nice look and ambiance — plus excellent service — but some of the food doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Chai's Island Bistro

Aloha Tower Marketplace; Lunch, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; dinner nightly from 4 p.m.; 585-0011.


Chai's is an attractive space with a fine reputation, in part because of the popularity of owner Chai Chaowasaree, whose troubles with the Immigration and Naturalization Service last year made it seem as though this popular spot at Aloha Tower Marketplace might disappear.

That didn't happen. Chai's immigration status is settled, he's back to the restaurant and his many public-service projects, and we stopped around to see how the place is faring.

A patio with umbrella-topped tables and an orchid-bedecked pool is a comfortable place to sit and people-watch or enjoy the cool night air.

Inside, the dining room is an intimate space, taking color from the sparkling bar area, awash in the Technicolor explosion of labels on the bottles lining the shelves.

This Pacific Rim-inspired kitchen is under Chai's personal tutelage (his family also owns Singha Thai on Ala Moana Boulevard) and he has further infused this Aloha Tower spot with nightly musical entertainment that can greatly enhance your experience.

The first night I visited, Azure McCall was in full command, softly serenading the crowd with old standards, jazzy sounds and sexy numbers. Another night showcased the 'ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

As we settled in, a basket with grilled pita bread and a couple of taro rolls was placed on the table. Instead of butter or olive oil, this was served with a small dish of peanut dipping sauce. Unusual, but it worked; anything would taste good with that sauce.

Deciding on appetizers was tough until I saw the chef signature combination platter ($26.95), enough for two people. It includes four of the appetizers from the menu: an Alaskan king crab cake, 'ahi katsu slices, crispy duck lumpia, and kataifi-macadamia nut encrusted black tiger prawns (skewered and grilled) piercing a hunk of fresh pineapple like edible stalagmites.

The platter looked great, but the flavor didn't quite match the visual.

The crab cake was densely packed, but the crab flavor didn't come through.

The 'ahi felt dry in the mouth. The wasabi aioli and curry sauces served with the 'ahi were a fine compliment, but not enough to take this over the top.

The crispy duck lumpia also was dry, and the prawns were so encrusted with batter and kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) that the prawn flavor was masked.

The platter was disappointing, considering the price.

Another starter, roasted fresh corn chowder and sweet Okinawan potato soup ($5.95) tasted too sweet and creamy, with no "roasted" flavor — too close to canned creamed corn for me.

Among entrees that we tried was the grilled Atlantic king salmon with truffle Madeira sauce ($28.95) served over smashed potatoes and Asian vegetables.

The sauce was on the sweet side, rounded out nicely by the truffle flavor. I enjoyed this dish.

Another evening, the grilled Mongolian lamb chops with brandy demi-glace ($36.95) were quite good, the lamb cooked just right.

This was served with the standard Chai's smashed potato and Asian vegetables.

The Asian-style osso bucco with kabocha pumpkin ($36.95) is decidedly different from the usual Italian rendering of this dish, a bit sweet, so be be aware of that if you're a veal shanks fan.

The service at Chai's is excellent, with well-trained staffers who are knowledgeable and friendly watching over the place.

I could listen to Azure McCall sing all night long, but, for me, nothing on the menu at Chai's sang. I like the way the restaurant feels and looks, but I wasn't wowed by the food on either of two visits.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.