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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 8, 2005

Fresh-off-the-slab fish takes French twist at Nico's

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Nico Chaize makes furikake sword fish on Nalo greens. His restaurant specializes in fresh fish dishes with the menu dependent on which fish are available at the Pier 38 fish auction just a few yards away.

Photo by Jeff Widener | The Honolulu Advertiser



1133 N. Nimitz Highway (across from the Nimitz Business Center, first floor of Pacific Ocean Producers) 540-1377


Free parking

Limited selection of beer and wine

Open 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Breakfast menu 6:30-9:30 a.m.; lunch menu, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Nico's at Pier 38 offers plate lunches with a French twist, appealing to local eaters as well as tourists.

Chef Nicholas Chaize likes to play with his food, adding a French accent to Hawai'i-style plate lunches. His namesake eatery — Nico's at Pier 38 — attracts both hungry locals and adventurous tourists for its fresh fish dishes.

It took years to become a reality, but the place finally opened last October. Chaize explained that for him, "the dream of any chef is to be a few feet away from a fish auction."

For someone born in Lyon, a center of French gastronomy, who learned to cook on the job and has worked in restaurants since age 15, it's a dream come true. Inspired by people he worked with in the past and food he grew up with, he now offers items such as grilled swordfish with fennel-cream sauce that create a splash as catch-of-the-day specials.

Nico's at Pier 38 was part of the state's plan for a fishing village to replace the old Kewalo fish auction site. Nico's regulars include auction workers from United Fishing Agency across the way, fishermen who have unloaded a catch off their longliners and buyers of fishing supplies from Pacific Ocean Producers next door. Tourists visiting the auction, which is open to the public and runs Monday to Saturday beginning at 5:30 a.m., also find their way here.

The eatery is your average, line-up-to-order scene with plastic chairs and tables, except that customers eat al fresco near the water with boats in view. During the day, it's strictly plate lunches with a little French pizazz.

But for the special-occasion private parties he caters at the restaurant in the evening, Chaize said, "It's all fine dining food, so I can play around." He said he'll consider regular dinner service after he sees how things go.

It's not all fun. Every morning Chaize arrives at the auction by 5:30 a.m. to pick up fish. Then he's on the line, cooking all day. "All the fish I run is (out) the same day, and I have no leftovers. You can't get any fresher than that," he said. Customers can taste the difference, which is what keeps them returning.

"My philosophy ... was to give people fresh fish for a reasonable price. ... All of the catch-of-the-day are around $7.25 to $8 maximum. It's fine-dining style but on a Styrofoam plate," he said. He understands from previous stints at Michel's and The Bistro that such restaurants have no choice but to charge more after paying the fish cutter, the buyer and all the in-betweens.

Here, he does more with less. "My menu is really small fish-wise because I can get only what I can get. I cannot put on my menu five different fishes because I'm not sure to get it every day from the auction — the prices go up and down every day," he said.

Despite the limited selection, Chaize does wonders with whatever he gets his hands on: His tender, moist, delicate preparations have included fish and chips made with hebi (shortbill spearfish), and seared tombo 'ahi with Provencal tomato sauce (black olives, basil and oregano).

He also dishes out his own interpretation of simply prepared local favorites such as a hearty loco moco ($4.95 mini; $5.95 regular) with a patty that hasn't been reduced to hockey puck consistency, and a rich beef stew (a heaping 32 ounces for $3.75) that made me wonder why I would go elsewhere for it. Mildly tangy hoisin barbecue chicken ($5.95) and soft pork roast with gravy ($6.95) that can be cut with a plastic fork shouldn't be overlooked, either.

Plate lunches come with a scoop of rice, chow-mein noodles and a choice of Nalo greens or mac salad.

And this is one of the cheapest places in town I know of for a fish and eggs breakfast ($5.95) with others costing anywhere from $9 to $11.50. I find the aioli-like, homemade ginger-garlic-cilantro dip addictive for all types of fish, even in the morning. For fries, too.

Out back he has a smoker that was built for him from scratch as part of another project. He explained, "We play with it sometimes ... it's like a toy." He smokes many types of meat such as ribs, fish or chicken.

"From the fish to the produce, I try to use as much local as I can. ... Right by the water, I have a garden going with basil and rosemary and stuff like that. I play, I have my garden and fish right on the pier. I'm trying to do it all."

My guess is that diners have just as much fun eating at Nico's, where the simple food will satisfy the hearty appetites of working men as well as discriminating visitors who enjoy dining on the water's edge.