It has been a long road back to being the King of Kauai chefs for Jean-Marie Josselin, since the demise a few years ago of his original restaurant in a Kapa’a mini-mall (the one with Safeway directions would always say), the critic’s favorite and universally beloved A Pacific Café. Josselin’s cooking at A Pacific Café was far more than just intriguing fusion for sunburned tourists wanting to taste Hawaiian food without the poi. A Pacific Café was revolutionary. The Hawaiian fusion presented by Josselin was a precursor for the likes we see today where Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco or Zahav in Philadelphia mingle a particular cuisine with influences from worldwide, making a fascinating gastronomic mash up that captivates diners visit after visit. It’s not fusion. It’s a thoughtful, global-minded evolution of a cuisine. A Pacific Café would have been on many of the “best of” lists and the desire of the foodie universe-blogger community that didn’t exist back in 1999. Most upscale restaurants on Kauai at the time were tourist traps along the ocean where the food wouldn’t try to compete with the view. A Pacific Café could’ve been in Studio City or Kansas City, there would be no way to know in that mini mall or in the dining room. The works of art on the plates could’ve held their ground in any major city. Kapa’a isn’t that different from San Francisco after all, they both have prominent Weiland whale murals.
For me, I can safely say Jean-Marie Josselin changed my life. Growing up, I was the opposite of a foodie. I loved frozen taquitos for snacks, egg mcmuffins for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly at lunch. As my family would visit Kauai each spring, my parents would go to A Pacific Café while my brother, my grandmother, and I would order pizza in and watch a movie. My parents would come back describing these masterpiece dishes with magical words in them like “firecracker salmon” and “mahi mahi,” and “ponzu.” Sometime around when I became old enough to go golfing finally, I also became old enough to go to A Pacific Café. A fervent passion for gastronomy ensued and has only increased to this day. Josselin’s mahi mahi with lime ginger sauce was the dish of my gastronomic adolescence, though it was so good our entire family would order it, not sampling much else, since we knew sharing the dish would cause somebody to end in tears. Josselin’s best selling 1992 cookbook A Taste of Hawaii was one of the first cookbooks I ever looked through, in addition to being one of the first cookbooks anybody created combining flavors of the Hawaiian islands with classical techniques (“New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific” says the book).
Josselin started expanding to other islands like his Hawaiian regional cuisine rival Roy Yamaguchi, even branching to Las Vegas with the restaurant 808. For a few years, Josselin created the pinnacle of Hawaiian dining when he took over the Beach House Restaurant, an elegant run of the mill romantic tourist trap with a stunning oceanfront location in Poipu. With the location and Josselin’s cooking, this was the summit of what dining in paradise could be.
Lots of possibilities can drag down a excellent restaurant: the chef becoming complacent, chefs making poor business decisions, over expanding. A chef can’t prepare much though for a nasty divorce. That is what buckled Josselin at the height of his popularity and talent. Gone went the Pacific Cafés and 808. Josselin vanished from the dining scene, breaking our hearts, and all of Hawaii’s.
Then in 2009 came the Shops at Kukui’ula in Poipu. With a 2004-like Red Sox comeback, Josselin bounced back from being throttled by the divorce and emerged with the same exciting cooking in a new format at Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, the master is back, and as good as ever now in 2012.
As the name suggests, Josselin’s follows more of the format you’ll find in Madrid or Barcelona, where have the menu is bite sized tapas to small plates, the other half is larger plates bordering on entrée size. There are no clunkers on the menu. There are some merely good dishes, some very good ones, and some that show a game-changing chef at the top of his game.
In the latter category would actually be two of his large plate preparations. Josselin has always been a master of fish, like with the aforementioned mahi mahi. Here the mahi mahi is sesame crusted, perfectly flaky over Asian noodles, and a stunning pure, but intense nori vinaigrette like you might find in an omakase from a kaiseki master in Kyoto. Possibly even better is the butterfish, as soft as the name suggests from slow cooking, with a soy mirin reduction. This being 2012, pork belly is on the menu surprise, surprise. However, if every pork belly were as luscious and riveting as this one braised for 36 hours, with a glaze of local rosemary orange honey, and julienned apple kimchee that is intriguing as it sounds, pork belly merits its place on every menu.
I couldn’t get enough of the kiawe roasted asparagus with a 61 degree poached egg and applewood bacon, a dish on every menu of every local, neighborhood bistro, but barely any achieve the smoky char from the kiawe wood, or the perfect poached state of the egg with a close, but not quite liquid center. Vegetables continue receiving praises with an avcocado sampler, where the centerpiece comes roasted, in tempura, as a cupcake in the form of mousse, paired with peanut butter. A simple salad is far from that with blistered charred tomatoes, roasted feta, olives, and avocado.
One of two carry-over dishes from A Pacific Café is the firecracker salmon, that slightly resembles a firecracker in appearance from the fish being wrapped in tempura and shaped like a firecracker, but the spice from cucumber kimchee and a sweet-sour sauce doesn’t exactly ignite your palate. The standout tapa is the Kekaha shrimp and duck confit taco topped with a papaya salsa that masterfully weaves Kauai, haute French cuisine, and Mexican street food into one blissful tortilla. Here, Josselin is local, worldly, contemporary, speaking of our time and place. Being the son of a Portuguese father, a German mother, a French trained chef who has made his culinary mark in Hawaii, Josselin comes from an incredible global background, and dish after dish, especially the taco, shows how he successfully applies his upbringing, training, and experiences.
That global background comes through again courtesy of the steamed Kauai shrimp and pork shumai dumplings in a spicy eggplant vinaigrette, again spanning the globe, and beautifully blending surf and turf. It’s a dumpling preparation where the filling actually can be deciphered easily. The other Pacific Café carry-over is the tempura wrapped seared ahi in a wasabi ginger beurre blanc, mixing hot and cold, flash and old school continental, vintage Josselin. The only slight misses came at the very start. Scallop pillows lack a defining taste in a somewhat weak cardamom coconut broth and the excellent short rib steamed buns could hold their own in any dim sum, but is too bready, needing more of a filling. Don’t skip dessert despite all these tapas. There are some textbook profiteroles with an incredible vanilla bean ice cream filling, topped with a chocolate sauce that could be drunk. Or the good chocolate souffle cake that becomes excellent from the excellent roasted banana sauce that steals the show.
The large plantation style room with an open kitchen on one side and large open windows around the rest on the second level of Kukui’ula can get very loud from the hardwood floors and the packed tables. To make matters worse, since this is a tapa-focused restaurant, each table is twice the size as normal ones with a grand lazy susan in the center for sharing. It’s a great idea and very useful, but also makes normal conversation impossible.
With this being a tapa-focused restaurant, pacing for servers and the kitchen becomes a problem as well, with usually too many plates coming at once, and then breaks where nothing is on the table for too long. After the first round we had to request for the pace to be slowed down. The other slightly annoying matter is that menus don’t appear until after the sangria cart swings by, so you don’t know whether you want another cocktail, or a glass of wine, or to go for the sangria. The sangria server needs to take a lesson from the maître d’s of France or New York power dining rooms where they proudly display the champagne and caviar cart like their own children. Here, she was so shy displaying the sangria I didn’t even know she was addressing our table. If you go for the sangria, the traditional red and the lychee are both superb. Do avoid the overly sweet pomegranate version at all costs.
We are fortunate that there are happy endings in this world. It was heart-breaking to see Josselin forced to leave Kauai. Luckily for the Garden Island, the master is back, and better than ever.