Buttermilk batter-fried chicken thighs with an adobo butter sauce ($21) a specialty at Restaurant XO. Owner Kenny Lee would make this as the employee meal at Senia every Thursday, making his "KFC" a family favorite.

Elevated comfort food at Kaimuki's new Restaurant XO

Two young chefs from Senia bring their talents to a new project
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There's a couple of fresh new faces on Waialae Avenue opening a new restaurant in ... well, an old space. 

The old Hung Won on Waialae Avenue closed after two decades and turned into a Thai restaurant last year. The two owners, however, own their own respective stalls in Chinatown, and couldn't do both. Fortunately, one of the owner's sons stepped in and changed the menu concept, and opened Restaurant XO to the public yesterday.

So why should you care? Because chef/owner Kenny Lee and his partner in the kitchen, Aleina Chun, both come from Restaurant Senia in Chinatown. Lee started at JJ Dolan's, then worked at Sam Choy's Aloha Beer, Chef Chai, and Top of Waikiki before landing at Senia, where he's worked since they opened. Chun worked in Las Vegas and San Francisco, but has worked at Honolulu restaurants Max & Lucy's, Hale Ohuna, and Nanzan Girogiro. That's a lot of fancy pants training between them.

Aleina Chun, left, and Kenny Lee of Restaurant XO.

When the opportunity came up, Lee left Senia and cleaned the restaurant himself for a week until Chun joined him to help. And a week after that, they're open for business. So when you walk in, you'll still see the same decor and furniture from the previous restaurant, with the exception of the shiny XO wall in the above photo. You should ignore your surroundings and just focus on the food in front of you.

Lee and Chun named it XO because it's the name of a luxurious sauce in Chinese cooking, to reflect the local Chinese-American inspiration for their food without sounding too fobby. Some people will call this fusion-y, but if you grew up in a neighborhood like mine, you may recognize it as an elevated blend of different cultures and styles that appeal to a local palate. The fried chicken with adobo butter sauce (above), for example, is easily going to be a signature dish. The food is meant to be eaten family style, so go with a couple of friends.

Lee added that he's trying to fill his bar with local beers, but needs to make room in his refrigerators. So during this soft opening phase, he's offering a "super happy hour" all day, in which all national brand beers are just $3 to $4. 

Torn tofu salad with Thai dressing ($11), using fried tofu and soft tofu, watercress, candied walnuts, tomatoes and red onion.
Buttermilk fried oysters with curry aioli ($17).

I regret taking this photo of the oysters this way because that curry aioli is so good. The oysters are good, but the aioli really gives it a pop of flavor. It was so good, I dipped the shrimp chips from the tofu in it, too.

House ginger fried rice with 63-degree eggs ($14). This was a crowd favorite since it was comfort food, but with a mysterious umami to it — probably the house sauce. The veggies in it will rotate seasonally.
"XO" scallops ($27) with choy sum.

Traditional XO sauce is made with dried scallops, but they made theirs without the scallops to put onto fresh scallops. So I guess it's kind of a reversed XO sauce? Whatever it was, it was dericious!

Loaded potato au gratin ($16) with three cheeses, sour cream, scallions, pickled jalapenos and fried onions.

The potatoes au gratin were far and away a crowd favorite, with people fighting for the last piece. Everyone agreed this dish didn't match the Asian theme, but at the same time didn't care because it was so good. It's rich, savory, cheesy, and a little crunchy — that crunchiness sets it apart from any other gratin dishes you've ever had.

New York strip steak with broken pan vin ($24). The sauce is comprised of a complex blend of herbs and spices, including butter, soy, vinegar, and oyster sauce.
Chun created a dessert of a brown butter chocolate cookie ala mode, drizzled with fish sauce caramel. Say what? It sounds weird, but it works. Everyone in our group actually enjoyed the simplicity of it, although you could tell the flavors were all intense. 

Overall, our group enjoyed most of the food and some people are already making plans to go back. The prices at the moment range from about $9 to $27, and they're keeping it simple with just 13 items. It's only been one day, though, so I'm sure the menu will evolve — as will the interior decor.

Restaurant XO
3434 Waialae Ave.
808-732-3838
Open Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.