WRITTEN BY CHEF JAMAL LAHIANI
75-5805 Ali'i Drive Kailua Kona, Hawaii 96740
Photos from citizenpublikhousekona.com
at your dapper we like to see what can be slapped together. one part off the cuff and one part organized and strategic. par example. i recently helped alchemy group open citizen irish publik house (citizen for short) in the city of kona on the big island of hawaii. the project, from conception, to renovation, to opening the doors to the public, was slated to take an ambitious six to eight weeks. that didn't happen. it took twelve, give or take. but no matter -- the fact is a small group of people came together to open a restaurant in an amount of time that is really not so long, considering. and it opened relatively within budget to boot.
the concept for citizen is: irish bar meets cocktail lounge. random, i know. more so because none of us are irish, although we sorta have our own Patrick. however the opening was part of an organized and strategic, albeit risk taking, expansion plan of a growing restaurant group.
citizen's fashion sensibilities have been overseen by our resident coveted artist, erin miller (instagram: the_artery). The inspired space includes: whiskey barrel signage and table design, copper-like and wooden lodge ceilings meeting brick, and european streetlamp inspired lighting. This contrasts a place that stands in all of its whiskeyed glory over looking a kona coastline.
thankfully in my experience, I have thrived as a multi-ethnic intermediary in communities largely identified as true melting pots.
the “modern ethnic” approach to irish food
over the years i've found a nitch in bar kitchens. i serve real food, not heat and serve “bar food”, out of bar focused establishments. with 3 recent openings under my belt and the observation and minor involvement of about 4 others -- iv'e taken the approach of a modern ethnic cuisine, that is: justice done to an eclectic variety of regional flavor profiles. in the case of citizen, regional profiles consisted of flavors from the british isles. though the stated project identity is irish bar, the concept includes a cocktail bar component. to me, this was similar to the gastropub concept which originated in the UK. ultimately, this flexibility within the stated project identity allowed for the menu to better appeal to the target demographic.
A recent Washington Post article, Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food ‘ethnic' by Lavanya Rmanathan urges us to question our perception of ethnic food and challenges us to instead use the term immigrant food it explains the bias belief that ethnic is brown, ie. indian, jamaican, and ethiopian. while shedding light on the fact french, italian, and german are also immigrant foods. however these foods are commonly seen as more assimilated into our long complicated american landscape thereby losing the “ethnic” monicker. i think this is a good lens to see irish food through. common perceptions of irish food range from boring or bland to craveable. some even find it comforting in its unwavering consistency to remain exactly the same after multiple generations of neighborhood operations and cornerstones of the communities that they rest in.
i, unbound by tradition, am not irish. citizen pub was a perfect candidate to be touched by the sensibilities of modern ethnic cuisine. not only is it associated under the broader umbrella of uk culinary offerings of which we've seen public perception change from viewing british food as revolting to accepting it as a bearer of good quality. gastropubs particularly represent the change in notion that simple places like pubs can boast extremely satisfying kitchens. so, i accepted the challenge of developing an irish menu and the approach was second nature to me. first i researched the classics in order to digest the ones i believed in to represent what citizens menu might feel like. then, much like a tasting menu might be conceived i moved from light to heavy while covering the bases with a balance of vegetable, cheese, fish, bird, meat, and sweet items. while taking into account staple ingredients like leeks, ale, loin bacon, and the ubiquitous potato - all that was left to do was cook food that was undeniably tasty. our brother isaiah calls this provision the experience of deep impactful flavors.
although not a moroccan kitchen, citizen has no less spices on its rack. we pump flavor into our banger sausage mix to make scotch eggs served with house pickled parsnips. the flavors and garnishes of chowder finds its way into a broiled oyster appetizer, curry flavor beloved to the uk perfumes a ketchup for our fried potatoes, the method of brining corned beef is borrowed to lend interest to a salmon dish whose champ mashed potatoes are tinted green by scallion-tarragon oil, and rack of lamb is decadently used as our protein of choice inside of an irish cheddar broiled shepherd's pie.
call it the german in me but i prefer fish n chips to be called fish fry, because goodness forbid your expectations be tainted by an experience of years of underwhelming fish n chips. although getting the latke like boxty potato pancakes right was not an easy matter.
cheers and slainte.