Student waiters Ray Valdez from The Pearl (L), and Marina Machiavelli from Ka ‘Ikena (R)
Image: Maria Basques

A sampling of the future of island cuisine--while the cooks are still in school

Honolulu’s next generation of chefs–the culinary students at Leeward (LCC) and Kapiolani (KCC) Community Colleges–are at your service.

The Pearl, LCC’s fine dining restaurant, is the polished output of the Culinary Arts Program, coordinated by Tommylynn Benavente. Perks include opportunities to work side-by-side with big-name chefs such as Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and others. Benavente is a firm supporter of sourcing locally, saying that the program works with farms such as Mari’s Garden, Naked Cow Dairy, MAO Organic Farms and more to shape dishes served at The Pearl.

The Pearl is somewhat reminiscent of Assaggio, with sharp lines, tiles and contemporary Pacific Rim decor. The restaurant’s light blue and chocolate color scheme provides a welcome contrast to the mundane concrete campus outside. Full ceiling-to-floor windows fill the makai-facing wall.

The accomplished food does service to its servers; once the dishes arrived, it was easy to overlook any awkward bits with the waitstaff (also students, giving sometimes forced interactions)–after all, this is a professional institute and we diners were part of the training. The credit goes to the highlight of my meal, a sautéed scallop with shrimp agnolotti (similar to ravioli, but with meat) appetizer, drizzled with a divine, lightly curried saffron emulsion ($6). The pasta contained generous chunks of shrimp, and the bacon-wrapped scallop sent me to heaven.

My friend Maria’s appetizer was a lamb moussaka with a vegetable ragout ($6). Having never before tried this eggplant-based dish, she was pleased by the contrasting spicy and tangy flavors, along with its cheese filling. The ragout boasted a local ingredient: Hamakua tomatoes, stewed just right and not overly acidic.

For my entree, the waiter recommended the duck breast with spring rolls ($15); Maria ordered the pork tenderloin ($14). The duck slices were fatty and moist, and a hot and sour sauce cut through the oiliness with ease. The pork tenderloin was tender, but very simply seasoned. Plated with a non-wilted, wilted watercress salad, edamame salad and green mashed potatoes, the pork entree melded into one very green plate.

Our desserts, a ginger crème brûlée and dark chocolate tart with house-made blackberry sherbet ($5 each), made for satisfying, clean finishes.

Upon payment, we were stopped short; The Pearl only accepts cash. Thankfully, there’s an ATM nearby, but there’s no “Cash Only” notice at the entrance, on the website or menu itself, which comes as an unwelcome surprise to the unacquainted.

Trying to score a reservation at KCC’s equivalent, Ka ‘Ikena Lauae, however, was a Herculean effort, as they fill up suprisingly quickly.

Dining Room Instructor at KCC, Aaron Chau, explains, “We try to purchase from local vendors and farms whenever we can. We also grow some of our own vegetables and herbs in our organic farm here at KCC,” which include rosemary, chives, basil, green onion and kale.

At the door, diners are greeted graciously and led into a room similar in layout to The Pearl, with one wall full of windows. Here though, a breathtaking view spans the sunset vista from Kahala Beach to Koko Head.

An important distinguishing factor about Ka ‘Ikena, unlike The Pearl, is their prix fixe menu, price dictated by the entree chosen.

Our waiter started us off with an amuse-bouche of crispy pork katsu with traditional sauce. It tasted just like Grandma’s tonkatsu, but felt fancier served in a spoon. Maria ordered another sautéed scallop dish, and after contemplating grilled chicken skewer or marinated asparagus, I decided on the special of the day–kampachi, which comes served three ways: carpaccio, steamed and spicy poke ($2 extra on top of the fixed price). Extremely fresh fish done well.

Next, I ordered chicken with butternut squash soup, but my order didn’t get properly relayed, and another chicken dish–in skewer form–found its way to the table. It still tasted excellent, plated with a pleasantly acidic Thai green papaya salad and fresh summer roll.

All entrees at Ka ‘Ikena had a Pacific-Rim flair, with options that included Asian herb portabella mushroom steak ($27), wok seared seafood medley with Asian vegetables ($30) and more. I ended up with the lime ginger infused cornish hen ($28), decorated with a shiitake-pepper salad and tumeric lemongrass rice. Maria chose the Asian herb marinated New York steak ($30), which was intensely supple, married with a yuzu miso sauce. The bold herbs and vegetables reflected the hard work put into tending the school’s organic farm.

The whole room was bustling, moderately loud with chatter, which dissolved the restaurant’s “fine” atmosphere into a demure, relaxing space.

We were rewarded with take-home cream puffs, as I suspect our server caught me taking notes about the food. We left Ka ‘Ikena wonderfully satisfied. It is notable, as Chau mentions, that some chefs of the program have graduated into big names, such as Robin Lee, the executive chef at Nobu in Waikiki, “and Alan Wong, of course,” he adds.

For a not-so-pretentious price, an upscale lunch or evening is more than just possible at the restaurants hosted by LCC and KCC. Both locations have distinct differences, but both locations are fueled by devoted and hardworking culinary students creating memorable meals rooted in sustainable food culture.

The Pearl
Leeward Community College, 96-045 Ala Ike St., lunch Wed.–Fri., 11:30am–1:30pm, last day of service this semester is Fri., 11/30, re-opening in late Jan., [], 455-0475
Ka ‘Ikena Lauae
Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Rd., lunch Tue.–Fri., 11am–1:30pm, dinner Tue.–Fri., 5:30–6pm, last day of service this semester is Wed., 11/28, re-opening in late Jan., [], 734-9499