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Behind the line: Island treasure

Nico’s offers best of Honolulu Fish Auction

Seafood dishes account for 80 percent of sales at this Hawaiian hot spot. - Photo courtesy of Nico’s at Pier 38
By Lauren Kramer
August 05, 2011

Look out for Nico Chaize if you ever find yourself at the Honolulu Fish Auction around 5 a.m. The chef and owner of Nico’s at Pier 38 in Honolulu, is there daily to stock his refrigerator with the 200 pounds of fish he needs to serve between 700 and 800 daily customers who come to Nico’s for a takeout breakfast or lunch.

There are no frills here: Meals are served in polystyrene containers and are consumed at plastic tables beneath an awning outside his café. When tables are full, diners seek shade beneath trees that line the pier, gazing out at the commercial vessels as they munch on fish and chips or Nico’s most popular lunch dish, furikaki pan-seared ahi tuna. Breakfast favorites include fish and eggs, and the fish omelet.

Most of those diners are businessmen out for a quick lunch, fishermen and dockworkers who love that the location is a net’s toss from their workplace, and increasingly, a handful of tourists who’ve heard about Nico’s and leave the well-beaten tourist track to check it out.

When Pier 38 opened seven years ago, Chaize procured a space for a small kitchen with a take-out window. The 35-year-old French chef from Lyon had dropped out of business school to work in the restaurant industry, starting out as a dishwasher and later, after moving to Los Angeles in 1999, working his way up to chef in a French café. He arrived in Oahu in 2001 and opened Nico’s at Pier 38 three years later.

“It started as a small project and now it’s like a monster,” he says as he looks at the lineup of customers patiently waiting to place their orders on a hot Friday afternoon.

The take-out window quickly expanded to become a 1,300-square-foot take-out café with a handful of plastic tables and chairs out front. It’s still too small, so next February Chaize will be moving to the opposite side of the pier where he’ll expand into a 5,500-square-foot space. In addition to a larger take-out café, the new space will include a market selling fresh fish, marinades, produce, wine and beer.

“The reason I’ve been successful comes down to two things: quality and value,” he says. “No one does what I do on the island for the price I do it. And the only reason I can do it this way is because I buy my own fish, straight from the auction, without having to deal with a middleman.”

There’s nothing priced over $10 at Nico’s, with most meals averaging $8 and including a side of fries or salad. The menu includes a handful of beef, chicken and pork dishes but seafood constitutes 80 percent of sales. The café serves up to four species of seafood each day, among them ahi tuna, albacore tuna, salmon, marlin, swordfish, mahimahi and opa. With the exception of the frozen calamari, everything is fresh, wild and procured at the auction, often the same day it is served.

“I’m 100 percent for fresh, wild-caught, sustainable fish,” he says. “And the Hawaiian fishing industry is the most regulated in the world, so I know that the species are tracked, tagged and counted when they are caught to ensure they are sustainable.” The Hawaiian fisheries use hook and line exclusively, avoiding gill, trawl or seine nets.

Chaize’s French culinary background is evident in his specials, where he serves the catch of the day with sauces reminiscent of his hometown: roasted fennel, lemon caper, bouillabaisse or Provençale-style, with olives, tomato and basil. He’s looking forward to expanding the menu after the café has moved to its larger location, and to serving an increasing number of appetizers and a greater selection of shellfish, such as steamed clams, mussels and fries and seafood pasta.

“My biggest challenge is getting fish at the right price,” he says. “It’s all about demand, so the price of a particular species can go from $1 per pound to $5 per pound in 24 hours. It’s a beautiful thing to buy fresh fish, but I have to get the numbers right and sometimes that’s difficult.”

On a hot day in early June, only one boat had come into the harbor and Chaize had left the auction empty-handed. Luckily he had ample swordfish stockpiled in his refrigerator from earlier that week, but he was fervently hoping the next day at the auction would be different. “I love working here, navigating those challenges and hearing the fishermen’s stories on the pier,” he says. “For me, this is a dream job.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

August 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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