By Léo Azambuja
The first time I walked into Kawaii Kokoro, I noticed the cleanliness, the simple ambiance and the refreshing air conditioning on a hot day. But then I immediately focused on all the eye-popping, mouth-watering desserts on display; cheesecakes, profiteroles, panna cottas, scones, manju, profiteroles, mousses, cookies and profiteroles.
Yes, I’m aware I said profiteroles three times. They’re so unashamedly good they need to be mentioned — and eaten — at least three times. I did. Each flavor.
“We are more a patisserie than a regular bakery,” owner Jason Sunada said. “Instead of baked goods, we went to middle- to higher-level desserts.”
Kawaii Kokoro, which means “cute heart” in Japanese, opened a year-and-a-half ago on Akahi Street in Lihu‘e, across the street from the iconic Tip Top Motel. Since then, it has become increasingly popular with locals and visitors.
Owners Jason and his wife, Nida Sunada, are both born-and-raised on Kaua‘i’s Westside and have known each other since high school. They bring with them a convincing touch of their Japanese ancestry to Kawaii Kokoro.
Jason said French patisseries have a strong influence in Japan, and the Japanese profiteroles are directly inspired in their French counterpart. But they’re not the same, though, as you’ll find out as soon as you sink your taste buds into a green tea profiterole at Kawaii Kokoro.
“The green tea profiterole is really robust; you can really taste the flavor,” Jason said. Don’t stop at green tea; have the vanilla and the 58 percent pure chocolate profiteroles too.
And the cheesecake! Yes, a lighter cheesecake can actually taste better than an all-American cheesecake, especially when you top it with tropical fruits.
Or you can go the route of a lilikoi mousse.
“It’s a Hawaiian thing,” Nida says of the mousse made with lilikoi, the Hawaiian name for passion fruit. I knew it, I have a lilikoi vine on my back fence that has made me very happy for many years. But what I didn’t know is that the lilikoi in their mousse is gathered by hunters deep in the forests of Kaua‘i. I’ll stop talking about the lilikoi mousse now, because all I can think about at this point is to go back there and get one.
You’ll find no fancy espresso machine at the patisserie, but they do have hot coffee and a large and colorful selection of hot teas.
The wide range of desserts at Kawaii Kokoro are entertaining both to the eyes and palate. As Nida explained their slogan, “Cute Creations from the Heart,” I thought it fit right into Jason’s work ethics. He studied culinary at Kapiolani Community College on O‘ahu, where his pastry chef instructor, an Austrian chef, avoided shortcuts and was always adamant about using wholesome products. Since then, this stuck with Jason.
“I worked in too many places where they went the bucket route, the cheaper route, the easier route,” Jason said. “I wanted to go back to the old style, where you use wholesome products, where everything is made with flour, baking powder, eggs.”
It’s all in the family at Kawaii Kokoro, a true family-owned-and-operated business. Jason pulled his parents out of retirement to work at the patisserie, gave his niece a job and got his sister to do the books. He even got Nida, who has a career in the hotel industry, to help at the patisserie each Sunday.
Jason said opening his own patisserie was a dream he had been brewing for almost 20 years. In most of his jobs, he would put 12 to 14 hours a day. His dad used to always tell him he could be opening his own shop rather than working that many hours for somebody else.
“I guess you can say I finally reached a point where I wanted to do something on my own,” Jason said.
Kawaii Kokoro is open Tuesday to Sunday. From Tuesday to Friday they open at 6:30 a.m., Saturday at 7 a.m., and Sunday at 8 a.m. Closing time is always at 5 p.m. Find them at 3184 Akahi St. in Lihu‘e.