Early Birds Fly High at Chef Chai
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Chai Chaowasaree, owner and head chef at Chef Chai, is going against the grain by presenting food that is not only delicious and delectable, but also healthy. Even his actual grains are healthier than what you’d find at most restaurants, and his Steamed Coconut Milk Ginger Brown Rice comes from Thailand and is high in vitamin B. These are just some of many ways in which he affords a level of thoughtfulness to his menu that is unparalleled in Hawaii.
“I believe that you are what you eat. Just imagine if every chef on the island stopped using butter for one month. You would see a big difference. I think everybody would lose maybe even an inch off their waist,” says Chaowasaree.
He has put this concept into practice by abolishing the use of butter in his kitchen.
“We focus on healthy. When I see my family, my parents, friends and me, we’re all getting older and being health-conscious becomes No. 1,” he shares.
While it is a bold decision to omit butter from his menu, it does not compromise the robust flavor each dish holds.
“There are ways to use herbs and spices to make it more flavorful, like doing a reduction. For our chicken stock, we cook it for a long period to get all the flavor, so you can get the richness from there rather than getting it from butter,” he explains.
The best way to get a taste of a variety of dishes on his carefully curated menu is to opt for the Early Bird Special. From 4 to 5 p.m., $40 per person gets you a four-part dining experience that would normally cost $60 per person.
The starter is Chicken Sate with Thai peanut sauce, cucumber salad and Asian flatbread. Then comes the first course, which boasts an array of Chef Chai’s signature dishes, such as the award-winning Kataifi and Macadamia Nut Encrusted Jumbo Black Tiger Prawns.
“The presentation is very stunning. The flavor has a little bit of sweet and acidity from the pineapple vinaigrette, you have the crunch from the kataifi and macadamia nut, and then of course the prawn — everyone loves prawns. So you get the look, the taste and the texture,” describes Chaowasaree.
Also presented on the dish is Fresh Ahi Katsu with wasabi curry sauce, and Gravlax Salmon Roulade with cream cheese and crab meat.
“The salmon roulade, we house-cure the salmon overnight with salt, sugar, fresh dill and lemon zest. The next day we fold in the cream cheese and crab meat. I think cream cheese and salmon go so good together, just like a lox and bagel, so we use that concept,” he says.
There also is Roasted Butternut Squash and Lobster Bisque Shooter, which is gluten-free and essentially a shot of warm, creamy soup.
“Normally, when people make a lobster bisque, they use a lot of butter. We puree the squash to make the soup and replace the butter, so it’s much healthier,” he said.
The main course consists of your choice among three dishes. Grilled Fresh New Zealand King Salmon is a savory option drizzled with kabayaki sauce, which tastes similar to teriyaki sauce, and topped with spicy pineapple. It is served with a staple in local entrees: white rice.
“At the old restaurant we used to use Atlantic King Salmon (AKS) because we didn’t know the difference. Now we realize that farm-raised AKS is fed hormones, and it’s so bad for the environment, versus the one from New Zealand (which) is farm-raised but it’s all natural. It’s a lot more expensive, about 40 percent more, but it’s … better for you,” he explained.
A vegetarian and gluten-free option is Vegetable Terrine with Thai green curry sauce and steamed rice, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. The terrine is a visually stunning slice of layered vegetables that looks almost too good to eat.
For dessert, enjoy Heart-shaped White Chocolate Gelato Truffle with raspberry guava puree. Big enough to share between two people, its tart flavor is the perfect way to complete a rich meal. It was created for Hawaiian Airlines when Chaowasaree joined it five years ago as executive chef.
The Early Bird Special is available daily and is a permanent fixture on Chef Chai’s menu. The chef notes that the dishes may change according to season. Chef Chai is located at 1009 Kapiolani Blvd. and is open for dinner nightly from 4 to 11.
1099 Kapiolani Blvd.,
Daily, 4-11 P.M.