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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 23, 2005

Weekly set menu indulges all senses

By Simplicio Paragas
Dining Out Editor

Chef John Neff's four-course menu this week features grilled lamb chops served with basmati mint rice.

Photo by Randy T. Fujimori

Chai's Island Bistro

Where: Aloha Tower Marketplace, ground floor

Call: 585-0011

Hours: Lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner nightly from 4 to 10 p.m.

Parking: Validated

Note: Call for nightly entertainment schedule.

Our out-of-town guests Betsy and Kathi kept explaining that their parents grew up during the Depression Era and so they couldn't possibly part with their plates until every morsel was gone.

Hah, a likely excuse, G.B. and I thought, as we watched them indulge and savor every single bite of food they had at Chai's Island Bistro last weekend.

While Pacific Rim dishes still dominate the menu here, hints of a new culinary, San Francisco-esque sophistication are beginning to emerge. This leads me to question if owner and chef Chai Chaowasaree is attempting to bridge the gap between Pacific Northwest and Pacific Rim cuisines? Or, is his cuisine — like all good cuisines — simply maturing and evolving after seven years?

Then again, are we witnessing a burgeoning culinary move that we haven't seen since a cutting-edge group of 12 local chefs coined the term "Hawaii Regional Cuisine" back in 1991?

The answer lies partly in the hands of executive sous chef John Neff, who recently joined the Bistro's already-talented kitchen crew, bringing with him a more technical approach to food, which he learned while working with acclaimed chef Michael Mina of Nobhill in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Evidently, owner and chef Chai Chaowasaree has given this young rising chef carte blanche, allowing him to develop weekly prix-fixe menus — like the one I had — from which individual items could also be ordered a la carte style. Cost for the four-course set menu is $40, a bargain considering that the average cost of an entree here is $32.

We each started with a bowl of mixed Nalo greens, leaves of which were slicked with a slightly sweet apple balsamic vinaigrette, then garnished with parsnip chips, sweet candied walnuts and smoky bacon bits to balance out the overall flavors.

I normally don't like salads before my entree, preferring to have it afterwards to help me digest. But this one I could have had before, and I could have easily had it again after.

From the a la carte menu, we ordered the chef's signature combination appetizer platter ($26.95), which includes Chaowasaree's signature kataifi-and-macadamia-nut-encrusted jumbo black tiger prawns and Alaskan king crabcake. (It would have been quite remiss of G.B. and me as hosts had Betsy and Kathi not tasted these two splendors.)

When the decorative foot-and-a-half-long China platter arrived, Kathi immediately claimed the crabcake. After a single bite, she gushed that this was THE meatiest and best crabcake she has ever had — a lofty standard, considering that she's from Vancouver, Canada, a place well known for its fresh seafood.

Betsy pierced a slice of the fresh ahi katsu with the tine of her fork and gingerly dipped it in the accompanying wasabi and peanut sauces. I followed suit, anticipating the tingling sensation of the wasabi root only to be tamed with the creamy peanut sauce.

Meanwhile, G.B. puckered her lips after tasting the lobster pot stickers ($9.95), which were bursting with bits of lobster, scallops and green onions. The potstickers, she said, were nicely plump and generous with the amount of ingredients used.

An order of Japanese eggplant-and-zucchini souffle ($9.95) rounded off our foray into the appetizers. Surrounded by a puddle of fresh tomato basil sauce, the dome-shaped souflee was tastefully constructed with strips of eggplant on the outside and zucchini on the inside.

As part of my prix-fixe menu, a delicate slice of foie gras was slightly sauteed, placed atop a slice of caramelized Granny Smith apple and toasted brioche, then drizzled with a gastrique (a reduction of caramelized sugar and vinegar). The velvety texture of the duck liver slid down my throat, chased down with a sip of Mumm's Champagne. Truly sinful and calorie-laden.

For their main entrees, the gals opted for the Chinese-style-prepared moi, which was steamed in a broth of Asian pesto and sake. I was surprised that this was even on the menu, hearing that demand for this delicate, Big Island farm-raised fish had outstripped supply and it had now become extremely difficult to come by. I guess it was our lucky night, as our charming waiter Keenan informed us that Chai's just put moi back on the menu earlier that week.

With my set menu, I was served lamb chops, which were plated with mint-infused basmati rice, as opposed to the usual glob of mint jelly. A forest of wild mushrooms enhanced the gamey flavor of the medium-temperature chops and married well with the minty rice.

I devoured the chops and cleaned my plate, as did G.B., Kathi and Betsy.

Hmm ... I guess we all had parents telling us never to waste food.