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Chef Tylun Pang and Memories of Local Flavors

November 25, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Recalling 1960s Hawai’i fine-dining history and traditions, the iconic Canlis restaurant in Waikiki was where kimono-clad waitresses brought huge charcoal-broiled steaks to your table (it was the early exotic “Asian” experience setting), and this must conjure up a magical fairy tale of a slower, old-fashioned Hawai’i.

Canlis epitomized fine dining during a different era, in a much smaller Waikiki, with a few luxury hotels (Royal Hawaiian, Moana, Halekulani, and an idea of a mass-market hotel that would become the Ilikai). Many Waikiki hotels and restaurants were designed by George “Pete” Wimberly (his firm would later evolve into Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo), an architectural pioneer who put his enduring stamp of natural materials and out-sized settings. His creations are now synonymous with Waikiki historical architecture, like all-night coffeeshops like Top's, Coco's and Popo's – all built with "lots of lava rock and an almost cartoonish South-Seas flair”.

Canlis itself was in a robust lava rock building in Waikiki. The entryway showcased a brightly-lit artificial garden-like setting with “a wall of many-colored orchids, ceramic and wooden sculptures by well known artists”. And there was a “dramatic copper broiler where the finest of steaks and seafood sizzled in full view” -- almost all the ingredients imported from Northwest fish markets or California agri-business farms. Canlis did not survive the transformation of Waikiki; the building is gone, replaced by a shopping mall, reflecting the mass-market tourism boom that now drives Waikiki.

In the 1970s there would be other up-scale restaurants like the Maile Room (at what was then the Kahala Hilton – and also required jackets for men), Michel’s (I liked the starchy French feel with a traditional menu, overlooking swimmers jumping into the surf -- I also confess that my first date with my spouse took place there), and La Mer (Halekulani) – the latter two with European fine-dining influence (the high calories of Michel's bearnaise sauce was amazing). Yes, I had memorable dinners at all of them.

These restaurants predated what would come next: under chefs like Roy Yamaguchi, Bev Gannon, Sam Choy and Alan Wong Hawai’i fine-dining underwent a revolution in the late 1980s into the 2000s, utilizing less red meat, less dairy-based heavy sauces, more fish, and lighter Asian influences, and employing in new recipes local Hawai’i fruits (like lilikoi, passionfruit), vegetables (bok choy, Manoa lettuce, taro), and locally-sourced protein (beef from Maui and the island of Hawai’i, local opakapaka, onaga, ahi).

Re-opened in April this year, the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea launched the signature fine-dining Ko restaurant, led by Executive Chef Tylun Pang. It offers cuisine inspired by Maui’s sugarcane plantation era of the early 20th century, with an additional influence of iconic ethnic dishes that were refined in the 1960s, especially in crowded, diverse, urban Honolulu.

Ko features island family recipes, farm-fresh Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese menu items – in other words, if one grew up in Kalihi or Liliha or Kaimuki (there was no Kapolei nor Soda Creek in 1960s Honolulu), one remembers certain dishes at small okazu-ya (Japanese deli’s), Chinatown delights, friends’ houses for eclectic spreads, and places like Liliha or Leonard’s Bakery for strong childhood memories (I would also highlight the wonderful bakery at the Alexander Hotel in downtown Honolulu). In my Kalihi-Palama neighborhood, there was no one who saw the inside of Canlis restaurant, but we could identify a dozen different Filipino or Hawaiian or Japanese dishes.

Executive Chef Pang re-creates his childhood memories in novel ways: I am now a fan of his appetizer American Kobe beef poke, absolutely delicious, taking a simple dish to a deeply satisfying level. His stir-fried peppered shrimp with baby bok choy, bell peppers, Maui onions and Chinese black bean sauce is a paean to the neighborhood Honolulu Chinese restaurant. My spouse C.’s favorite is the simply-named “Oishi Sushi” (or “good-tasting sushi”), a raw tuna roll fast-fried in tempura batter. At first I must admit, the concept did not sound appetizing, but now we order it every time.

Two dishes reminded me of dinners with Filipino friends in Kalihi – the Pancit noodles, made with savory rice and egg noodles with shrimp, pork and vegetables, and the light, crunchy Lumpia Filipino spring rolls with spicy dipping sauce. Whenever I have them I can hear Tagalog or Ilocano spoken and recall childhood memories.

Among the main dishes I like the local beef sourcing – the superb Maui Cattle Company Korean BBQ strip loin, along with tempura shrimp and won bok Kim Chee – a wondrous combination. My daughter is especially fond of the Ko Paella, Executive Chef Pang’s rendition of the Spanish signature dish, made with saffron rice with organic chicken, chorizo, lobster, shrimp, mussels, Spanish olives and red peppers. There is the excellent, very tender Ono Pulehu Chicken, a dish made with locally-raised chicken breasts marinated in ginger, soy and cane sugar served with caramelized Maui onions – again the Hawai’i sourcing obsession. For seafood lovers, the lavendar honey crisp Macadamia Nut shrimp with Kula Ali'i lavender also follows the Maui theme.

Two signature desserts reminded me of Liliha Bakery visits during holidays, surrounded by people from all over Oahu (and even from the Neighbor Islands): the Chantilly Cake, the absolutely creamy chocolate chiffon cake with sugar cream layers, and the Pao Doce Frito, a Portuguese sweet bread filled with Coconut Gelato fried crisp rolled in vanilla sugar served with Kula Black Raspberry Jam – a very complex, evocative dish that challenges my memories, imagination, and taste buds.*

It is no wonder that Chef Pang has won the 2012 Gold ‘Aipono Award: Best Menu for a Small Planet, two other Silver ‘Aipono Awards, and the 2012 “Diner’s Choice” award. We admire Executive Chef Pang for his look back to the wide range of ethnic cuisines of the plantation era and our Hawaiian childhoods, but also to create absolutely new dishes that re-define “local dishes” that will bring us back again and again back to Ko.

*For a look back at my malasada obsession see: My Quest for a Good Malasada in Brazil


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