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Inspired cuisine crosses culinary boundaries

Inside Feature

November 19, 2019

Story By: Caroline Wright | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO

“Modern local food” is the modest term that chef/owner Kenneth Lee uses to describe the extraordinary fare at his Restaurant XO.

However, it’s so much more than that. XO’s short menu, which changes quarterly, boasts fewer than two dozen items, but every one is intriguing and thoughtfully conceived.

One of Honolulu’s most creative young chefs, Lee has an impressive resume that includes work at J.J. Dolan’s, Sam Choy’s, Chef Chai, Top of Waikiki, Senia, and Hotel Wailea, as well as staging gigs at MW, Chef Mavro, Roy’s and Le Bistro.

Lee opened Restaurant XO, named for the sauce that was named after the cognac, in May 2018. “Originally I wanted to do modern Chinese food, but I kind of went in a different direction,” he says. “I guess it’s just more interesting to cook with fewer limitations.”

After a few moments’ study of the menu at Restaurant XO, it’s clear that Lee ignores traditional culinary boundaries, mixing and matching international flavors and styles as he feels inspired.

Chinese-, Japanese-, Koreanand Vietnamese-inspired dishes incorporate French, Italian and Greek techniques and ingredients, and vice versa. “We actually have a Nordic thing on the menu now!” Lee says. “I think when people eat our food, they all recognize something from their past.”

From the menu’s App section, the Yukhoe (Korean beef tartare) with Caramelized Kim Chee looks wonderful, as do the Sweet & Sour Char Siu Pork Belly with Crispy Brussels Sprouts and the Sous Vide Duck Breast with 36-Hour Confit Leg from the Protein section.

From Desserts, there’s a Double Layer Ice Cream Pie, outsourced to a pastry chef who once worked with Lee, whose flavor changes every week. And who could resist the housemade Brown Butter Mac Nut Baklava?

The setting is as exciting as the food. In a dining room with shimmers of silver and gold set against neutral grays, a wall gleams with dozens of snow-white china plates from the former tenant of XO’s location, a Chinese restaurant that had leased the place for years.

“We drilled them straight into the wall,” says Lee. “We thought that if a lot of plates cracked, it would make the ones that survived that much more impactful!”

With brilliantly conceived dishes that evoke the most delicious memories, and set the stage for new ones, Restaurant XO is a delight from the first bite to the last.

BEET & PUMPKIN ROULADE ($17)

Possibly the loveliest and most unusual dish served by Restaurant XO this quarter, the roulade is served with an incredible emulsified chimichurri. “This is a dish that many people really like a lot, even though it’s vegan and really healthy!” chuckles chef/owner Kenneth Lee. The dish’s show-stopping presentation offers a photo opportunity for food bloggers.

BIRD’S NEST SCOTCH EGG ($16)

Charmingly presented, this is a standard Scotch egg on a bed of shredded phyllo. “It’s seasoned with chili garlic vinegar powder, so it looks like an egg inside a nest on top of the tartar sauce,” says Lee. If you’re an adventurous eater, the Bird’s Nest can be supplemented with a Century Egg for just $5 extra.

LOADED POTATO MOCHI GNOCCHI ($21)

The puffy and golden brown gnocchi are served with chopped bacon, green onions and pickled jalapenos. They’re so delectable and satisfying that you might not want to share, and they’re so memorable that you’ll hope they’re on the menu when it’s changed next quarter.

ADOBO FRIED CHICKEN ($25)

Juicy, crispy and fragrant, this is perhaps Lee’s best-known dish; it’s certainly one that people absolutely rave about.

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