Jean-Marie Josselin is a legendary chef in Hawaii who, in the early 1980s, helped pioneer the state’s food identity. You wouldn’t know this if you watched him cook at his new Kapaa restaurant.
He’s the leader, tucked behind a small granite-topped bar, which is open to the cozy, art-deco dining room that seats 40. Sous Chef Mia Gaines is at his side along with a handful of others, all quietly cooking beautiful food layered with texture and flavor. It’s clearly a place where patrons can relax while a regional legend takes care of them.
When Josselin began his career, he teamed up with 11 other chefs from around the state and defined Hawaii Regional Cuisine. The late John Heckathorn, editor and food writer for HONOLULU magazine, named Josselin the most creative chef of the group.
Josselin opened his first restaurant, A Pacific Café, in 1990, which was located in Kapaa. In 1992, his cookbook “A Taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific” was released. Later, he opened seven more restaurants, all of which closed by 2008. In May 2011, he opened Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill in Poipu, which serves small plates of food inspired by global flavors. On Oct. 24, he opened his second restaurant Jo2 (pronounced Jay oh two) which, according to Josselin, is nothing like the popular A Pacific Café.
“If I try to recreate what we did for 15 years in Kapaa, I would be going backwards,” says Josselin. “It’s not what I do anymore. I have to stay fresh and always bring new ideas. When I started it 25 years ago, it was extremely creative and ahead of its time. That’s what I’m trying to do with this restaurant.”
It’s hard to categorize Jo2. It’s certainly fine dining, but it’s also comfortable and accessible. If Jo2 were a dish, it’d have to be the Domoyojiko Rice Congee ($17), which is complex, comforting and surprising. It’s earthy and beautiful yet fiercely flavored and warm and soft. The sweet rice is boiled, dried and broken into about thirds, and quickly becomes creamy when added to a spicy crab broth. Vegetables and lemon confit are tossed through and it’s topped with long strips of tempura crab legs and whispers of fresh ginger.
Jo2 promises a traditional menu of “natural cuisine” in which fresh (and local when possible) ingredients are transformed by modern cooking techniques into luscious vegetable-based dishes. Even though there’s a playful feeling about the food that’s served on rustic dishes evoking crystalline oceans and rocky cliffs, there’s a deeper calling.
“America’s food chain is not safe enough for people to trust,” says Josselin explaining why he works with local farmers to source heirloom produce. “Everyone is tired of getting sick from their food. In Japan or France, they take their food chain very, very seriously and they trust it tremendously.”
There are more than 100 small family farms on Kauai, but they cannot grow everything. When this is the case, Josselin purchases the best ingredients he can find. Quality is evident in the wholesome and inviting Artichoke Minestrone ($12). Artichokes are peeled to their tender hearts, mixed with thyme and olive oil and cooked sous vide. Three of them float in a light broth made with fresh tomatoes that are roasted and hand-squeezed. Underneath, an artful swipe of silky garlic puree makes its way into every bite. On top, a tangle of luau (taro leaves) infused gnocchi, rounds of summer squash, peeled grape tomatoes and green beans are sprinkled with zesty pistou.
Concentrated flavor explodes in your mouth from one bite of Onion Soup Bao ($9). Soft steamed buns are filled with caramelized onions, onion juice powder and tiny shards of ham hocks. It’s served with an airy cube of fried ham and cheese sandwich — inspired by the French croquet-monsieur — and a pool of black vinegar reduction, as well as bacon lardons tossed in a spicy house-made XO sauce.
Binchotan Grilled Leeks ($9) are a study in combining rich, refreshing and creamy. Josselin starts by grilling organic leeks over Binchotan charcoal, which doesn’t smoke. What does get smoked is a cool pool of buttermilk underneath. A nob of creamy goat cheese and XO bacon make the dish irresistible.
Seared “Hunan” style rack of lamb ($31) is immensely satisfying. Mint oil is drizzled over Colorado lamb, which is tender, juicy and robust. Not a hint of gamy flavor mucks up the meat, which sits on a bed of black rice, tender carrots, fingerling potatoes, baby bok choy and artichoke hearts all tossed in a savory chipotle and truffle sauce.
“I’m always trying to be ahead of the curve without being too weird,” says Josselin. “It’s not Pacific Rim cuisine. It’s not Hawaii Regional Cuisine. It’s my cuisine.”
Marta Lane, a Kauai-based food writer since 2010, offers food tours and is the author of “Tasting Kauai: Restaurants — An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island.” For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.