Pele’s Wok Bistro & BarMarch 8, 2019, 3:54 PM HST (Updated March 8, 2019, 3:54 PM)
An old Chinese proverb proclaims that when eating bamboo sprouts, one should remember the man who planted them. Executive Chef Aaron Murai from Hawai‘i Island’s newest Chinese-inspired restaurant, Pele’s Wok, agrees.
Murai is committed to supporting local food producers and pairs the best Chinese ingredients with locally sourced seafood and meats from “boutique” farms. With ingredients like Puna chicken, local grass-fed beef, Kona shrimp, Big Island honey and more, Pele’s Wok offers up the best the island has to offer.
James Babian, the owner of Pele’s Wok, brought Murai into Pele’s kitchen at the Shops at Mauna Lani, from his wildly successful Pueo’s Osteria restaurant in Waikoloa Village.
“I was the executive chef at the Fairmont for eight years, and then at the Four Seasons for six years,” said Babian. “My right-hand man was Aaron Murai. When we opened Pueo’s, he said he wanted to be a part of my team. I didn’t want to take anybody from Four Seasons and I couldn’t pay him what the Four Seasons paid him. He said he felt as though he never worked for the Four Seasons, that he worked for me. That was difficult for me to turn down, so he came with me, and Pueo’s became very successful because of him.”
Noticing a need for a Chinese restaurant in the Waikoloa area, Babian mentioned opening up a new establishment with Murai. His chef responded, “You know, my passion is cooking, but my obsession is Chinese food. I eat Chinese every day, seven days a week.”
So, after five years of success at Pueo’s, Babian opened up Pele’s Wok with Murai as executive chef.
“We called it Pele’s Wok, out of respect for the island,” said Babian. “It gives a sense of place to the guests that come here. And at the end of the day, Pele owns everything, right? So, it’s Pele’s Wok Bistro & Bar.”
Babian believes in a “plant-to-the-plate concept.” He keeps his products local and fresh for his guests. Gourmet and artistic, the menu items are not cheap, as far as Chinese food goes. Diners won’t find the $8 or $9 dishes found in a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant. However, for the quality of the product and portion size, it’s a great value. The chef is also happy to alter menu items for different needs.
“A Chinese menu could easily hold 20 items or 300 items,” said Babian. “If you don’t see something on the menu, chances are we can make it for you. We are very accommodating. We cater to vegans, gluten-free and vegetarians. The menu may list a lamb bao bun, but the chef has in his back pocket a mushroom bao bun and a veggie bao bun. It may not be listed on the menu, but just ask the server.”
There are many delicious items to choose from on the menu; however, there are two items to definitely not miss out on. They are the Wok Tossed Brussels made with vinegar, honey, chile, sesame, garlic and fish sauce, and the Red Ginger Cake with Mango Ice Cream.
Other recommended dishes are the Niihau Bao Buns with Chinese plum braised Niʻihau lamb and hoisin sauce, and the Ahi Poke Summer Roll, made with sashimi-grade wild-caught tuna, local veggies, ogo and soy-lime dipping sauce. The Shanghi Pork Dumplings and the White Shrimp and Blue Crab Shumai are delicious starters, and the Chicken Won Ton Soup and Five Spice Half Roasted Chicken make a satisfying and comforting dining experience.
With a fun cocktail and wine list, engaging service and a comfortable environment, Pele’s Wok is off to a great start. Food is both an artful and cultural experience. It is meant to be savored and enjoyed. By combining the warmth of Hawaiian culture with the Chinese cultural passionate for food, Pele’s Wok is a welcome addition to the Hawaii Island dining scene.