In a once seedy space off Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, something extraordinary has materialized. The Zetton Group transformed one building into two sophisticated restaurants. On the ground floor is the farm-to-table izakaya, Zigu, and more recently, Paris Hawaii opened its doors on the second floor.
True to the European half of its name, the feeling when stepping into Paris Hawaii is that you’re not in Hawai‘i anymore. The darkened, rustic space—including a floor pieced together from reclaimed wood—is reminiscent of a tapas bar. A long bar invites visitors to relax and unwind at the end of the work day.
There is an intimate dining room, but the seats most in demand will be those at the chef’s counter for an audience with chef Yuya Yamanaka. This is where you will embark on your culinary journey, one that combines time-tested French techniques, artisanal traditions and locally sourced ingredients.
Yamanaka’s own journey began in Hokkaido, Japan, a region known for such delicacies as cold-water sea urchin raised on kelp, juicy Yubari melon, sweet scallops, hairy crab and marinated lamb. It was the root of his interest in the culinary arts.
“My grandfather loved food. He would take me with him on trips to the ocean, fishing, going to restaurants, eating from fresh ingredients and local food,” Yamanaka says. “Those times with my grandfather shaped my view on the quality of ingredients and the importance of fresh and local. This passion has followed me throughout my career.”
His interest led him to pursue a degree at Tsuji Gakuen Cooking & Confectionery College in Osaka, Japan’s top culinary school, and he went on to improve his skills by working several years in Paris, including at Clown Bar, a restaurant that, soon after opening, earned Best Bistro honors in 2015’s Le Fooding Guide, and was described as “the most thrilling restaurant in Paris” by Eater.com.
The bistro’s reputation drew the atten- tion of Zetton chairman Kenichi Inomoto, who couldn’t leave Paris two years ago without checking it out. There, he struck up a conversation with Yamanaka, Clown Bar’s sous chef, which ended with an invitation to visit Hawai‘i for a look at Zetton’s growing restaurant empire, which also includes Aloha Cafe, Goofy Cafe and Heavenly Island Lifestyle.
While the initial aim of Paris Hawaii was to bring French cuisine to Honolulu, Yamanaka’s philosophy meant recalibrating for Hawai‘i’s unique environment and availability of ingredients.
“I came to Hawai‘i because it is difficult. The ingredients are challenging to catch or find, but when they are found they are real, they are natural; they are pure and flavorful. The challenge is in the hunt, the reward is the flavor and purity.”
While the restaurant was being built out, Yamanaka had time to learn to surf, get to know the ocean habitat, explore the fish auctions and get to know the bounty offered by local farms.
“There are excellent ingredients and I enjoy showcasing them in unique and also classic ways,” he says.
Save for the differences in ingredients, he utilizes the same techniques and creates dishes he might have put on the table in Paris if he had the same kind of access. “There was really no adjustment to the differences in cuisine,” he says. “I just do things in my style.”
Among traditional offerings is a French onion soup, made here with Maui onions, but without added broth. Instead the onions are pressure cooked to release all their water, creating an all-natural broth. A light pastry choux topped with cheese is presented on the side. Diners are instructed to enjoy the purity of the soup alone for a few sips before adding the choux, which gave the dish the French ambience of the giant cheese-covered baguette crouton usually floated atop the soup.
While in Paris, Yamanaka frequently enjoyed classic beef tartare. He believes the Hawai‘i classic equivalent is ‘ahi poke, and merges the two in a dish dubbed Paris ‘ahi poke. Here, the beef and fish are simply dressed with a dash of olive oil and soy sauce to bring the two worlds closer together.
The restaurant features a prix fixe tasting menu with two seatings nightly, at 5:30 and 8 p.m. For non-Japanese speakers, any questions while dining can be answered by general manager
Andrew Haberer, a ceramist who also created blackened plateware designed to mimic the look of volcanic rock, which Yamanaka has used to present house-made bread.
The restaurant’s eight-course opening menu started with an amuse bouche sip of Kahuku corn and Hawaiian expresso espuma to wake the senses. Then, a single head-on Kaua‘i shrimp dotted with a tasty paste of black garlic and accompanied by aioli made with local eggs.
Heavier dishes of five-day aged Big Island beef and J. Ludovico Farm chicken pithivier followed. The latter with the chicken baked into a light layer of bready pastry and served with espuma of Okinawan sweet potato, plus sauce derived from a reduction of the bird’s bones, sherry and garlic.
All the while, Yamanaka and his staff work quietly and methodically before counter diners’ eyes, slicing, sautéing, plating, saucing. The aged beef had been smoked upon our arrival—the scent of kiawe wood filling the air with the lifting of a glass cloche assisting the process—then set aside for finishing later.
Dessert, too, is an on-demand event. Those who order the Kilauea lava cake can watch the accompanying coconut ice cream created on the spot with the help of liquid nitrogen. Coconut char- coal mixed with créme anglaise created a pebbly texture the chef compared to a‘a lava that is poured around the cake. When cut open, the cake reveals its red raspberry center, which oozes out to create the full volcano experience.
Paris Hawaii, 413 Seaside Ave., 2nd floor, (808) 212-9282 or paris-hawaii.us