Food & Drink / Settled in at Alan Wong’s, Passion-Fruit Mojitos and Loca-Vore Mai Tais on the way, the four of us chattered with wild abandon–much to catch up on, much to celebrate. Then we opened our menus. Talk slowly tapered off. “Oh, my.” “Hey, this looks good.”The Boy and his Girl huddled. He hadn’t been back to Hawaii in four years, due to college and a demanding job in New York City..
My wife and I first tried Alan Wong’s when we were the New Yorkers home for a visit. The James Beard Foundation had just givenit their 1996 Best New Restaurant award, in particular for Wong’s interpretation of local Hawaiian food as haute cuisine. As a Californian who fell in love with Dairy Queen teriburgers and saimin in 1969, I had no problem with that. My wife, a local girl, was a harder sell.
Did we really want to blow the rent on a reinterpretation of what we scarfed at the manapua trucks at Sandy Beach? Turns out we did. And were cheering at meal’s end. You can still order updated versions of those dishes today, and they’re as surreal and surprising as ever: “Mini Loco Moco” ($15), “Twice Cooked Shortrib Soy Braised and Grilled Kalbi-Style” ($33) and “Da Bag ($12.50),” steamed clams and kalua pig.
We’ve been checking out chef Alan’s restaurant every couple of years. He has stayed ahead of the curve: very early into locally sourced foods, the whole snout-to-tail thing, opening a casual bistro version (The Pineapple Room). A founder of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, he’s not lost anything off his knuckleball (pig’s knuckle, of course). He even made kalua pig for Obama at a White House dinner. Wahiawa boy makes good!
Wong’s has earned its world-class eponymous status, but he’s resisted the temptation to franchise. You won’t find a Wong’s in Las Vegas, at Columbus Circle or in your local airport hub. He’s not in a hotel, and, so far, he’s not on TV. He’s stayed true to himself, true to Hawaii, digging deeper into our roots instead of spreading himself thin. There’s a reason the dining room’s open-air view faces the Koolaus, not Waikiki.
All this is what I would have said to my son’s girl, before recommending “Da Bag” as a starter, if Da Boy hadn’t flipped the menu over and said, in his deeply authoritative voice, “Instead of spending the next half hour trying to decide, let’s just do the Chef’s Tasting Menu and talk to each other.”
A gourmet ever since he rejected his first keiki menu at nine, in France he’d gravitated to the “plat supplement”–whether coquille St. Jacques, or bigorneaux (‘opihi). Yes, he blew a hole in our budget, but now he was on his own in Manhattan and had eaten at Jean-Georges, Craft, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison, this year’s No. 1 New York Magazine pick. So my wife and I smiled at each other, as parents do, and surrendered.
The seven-course dinner ($95 per person, $135 with wine pairings) offers an entirely separate dining experience from à la carte. Toasting the kids with the wine pairing of a delicate Diebolt-Vallois brut, we started with an appetizer trio slotted into a ceramic tray: a seafood salad on soy milk panna cotta, Kona lobster “Vichyssoise,” and Peterson Farm egg flan. The panna cotta was a deceptively bland way to set your palate at zero before the richness to come. The cold lobster in cream played a similarly muted fanfare in homage to an evening of homard. The flan was ethereal and eggy.
A flying saucer plate landed with a very fat diver scallop in the center, dusted with bubu arare and nestled in an edamame truffle sauce. Greedily anticipating being flown to the moon, halfway through I found myself eyeing its bluish center, wondering why it lacked the tubular cell structure that gives a scallop a delicate pop. That’s the drawback of having grown up diving for your own dinner: a raw scallop eaten off your own knife is hard to equal. The Paul Furst “Pur Mineral” almost made up for it, however.
The Crab “Tofu” Agedashi was something nobody can hope to duplicate, at home or on your Zodiac. Served with a crisp cold Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto extra dry sake, the spanner crab mousse was saluted by Kona lobster medallions and lump crab. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it. “Very rich,” my son said. “What flavor.”
The lobster medallions were a prelude to the butter-poached Kona lobster. Finished in a pen flooded with nutrients piped up from a 3,000-foot deep offshore canyon water column, the signature Alan Wong crustacean is the dish I’d like to send my lobster-loving father in heaven. Sipping the pairing, my first-love French wine, a Vouvray from Champalou, I sensed Dad was in the house, and approved.
My wife and I approached the next dish with trepidation: pan steamed North Shore tilapia, served with shrimp pork hash, truffle nage, gingered vegetables and tapioca pearls. We’ve resisted tilapia–while it’s a great sustainable choice, in lesser hands it’s basically a sauce delivery mechanism, like farmed catfish. Wong’s version was a revelation. Great dish, great news for the environment: Waiter, more of that fine Olivier Savary Chablis!
Any Hawaiian culinary tour de force wouldn’t be complete without a cut of paniolo beef, and at this point in the meal I welcomed the sensory heft and sinewy texture of a Maui Cattle Company tenderloin, the foie gras black-pepper sauce sparking nicely off Wong’s own Napa red, The Kitchen Sink.
The dessert plates arrived with hand-frosted congratulations for the Boy and his Girl, who, it may as well be revealed, had recently got a little bit engaged. Raising our Brachetto d’Acqui in yet another toast, we lolled Kula Strawberries Romanoff around our tongues, adding dabs of tart and savory with spoonfuls of Big Island Goat Cheese panna cotta and sorbet.
We were in that rarified state that accompanies a lifetime meal. But my son can’t resist being analytical: “There’s no place in New York that compares to Alan Wong’s, taking the food together with how unpretentious it is. It really was my favorite dinner I’ve ever had.” And with that, he picked up the check.