Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Alan Wong's Honolulu - Oahu, Hawaii

$95 would seem a lot to pay for a meal, but when you shell out this amount at Alan Wong’s in Honolulu for its signature 5-course prix fixe, you are getting a downright bargain.

This Oahu institution, which has been in business for more than two decades, has rightfully been praised by every food magazine as one of the best restaurants in the country. Wong has also been recognized by the James Beard Foundation as one of the Best Chefs of 1996. But after visiting it for the first time, I’d argue that even to this day, Wong and his eponymous restaurant still deserves the distinction.

First a warning for those who have not dined here but plan to: Alan Wong’s is not located in the safe confines of a resort, nor does it have a beach or ocean view. It’s found on the third floor of squat office building amidst an inner-city neighborhood that will make you think you’re deep in the heart of LA’s San Fernando Valley. If you were teleported here and looked out the window, you would not guess you were in Hawaii.

But as soon as you walk in, the effortless island charm you’d expect from a people whose state thrives on tourism is very much in tact. The staff is impeccably warm, friendly, even chummy. Every person I interacted with, down to the valet, was as happy to be here as I was. This, in turn, made me even more happy. They do everything to make you feel like a V.I.P., especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion. They will print out a special menu with the celebrant’s name on top. The menu is also signed by the entire staff, and at the end of the meal, if you’re commemorating a birthday, they will bring out a complimentary slice of chocolate cake on a personalized plate complete with a lit candle.

It’s not as if you’ll need the cake. If you order the prix fixe, it already comes with a dessert course, one that we couldn’t finish. After eating all the free bread slathered with spicy aioli, and then the four nearly full-sized portions of Wong’s most popular dishes, we were stuffed.

It started with a “Soup and Sandwich”—a martini glass filled with chilled tomato soup, and a triangle of a foie-gras-kalua-pig-mozzarella grilled cheese sandwich. The sandwich sat on a plank of Parmesan crisp set like a bridge on the rim of the glass.

As I alternated between bites of the sandwich and sips of the gazpacho-like soup, I realized the genius behind this dish. The spicy, cleansing, and refreshing soup balanced the warm and decadent richness of the pork and foie. It’s hard for me to think of a more thrilling dish that I thought looked ordinary and unimpressive at first glance.

Next was a Keahole lobster and shrimp lasagna with garlic tomato sauce, which the waiter advised should be savored slowly and not inhaled. Heeding his advice, I ate each component in as small a bite as I could muster, letting each morsel linger in my mouth before I swallowed.

The fish course was a ginger-crusted Onaga (Long-tailed Red Snapper) with miso sesame vinaigrette, mushroom, Nozawa corn, and baby corn sprouts. The dish was by itself a revelation: a ginger-scented and perfectly cooked fillet served over a tangy, umami-packed sauce that was dotted by crisp corn kernels as sweet-as-candy.

But then came the piece de resistance: a garnish of baby corn sprouts. For me, it pushed this dish from “great” to a bonafide “revelation”. If you’ve ever wondered what a corn husk would taste like if it were edible, this is it. And it’s incredibly sugary, grassy, and tastes of summer.

For the meat course, the kitchen put out a “surf and turf” plate that’s basically Hawaiian food culture distilled onto a few square inches.

The “turf” was a twice-cooked short rib (soy-braised and grilled kalbi-style) moist and tender enough to be pulled apart with a gentle tug of the fork. The braised beef, above all, should be used as a lesson for all chefs on how it should always be prepared. The “surf” was a single shrimp gilded in wilted green onion, two simple ingredients that, when put together, becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And for the vegetable, there was luscious eggplant spears cooked in miso while splotches of a sriracha gochujang sauce decorated the plate.

As Wong is not just a great chef, but also a practical one, he knows no dish like this would be complete without a bowl of rice. And as if on cue, it arrived right after the server explained all of the components.

Finally, as we were already bursting at the seams from the savory dishes, the sweet course arrived. It was an assortment of chocolate desserts that included a house-made “Waialua” milk chocolate macadamia nut crunch bars that could bankrupt the Mars candy empire if it ever went to mass market. Next to it, there was a truffle filled with salted caramel, a crispy tuile, and a perfect cookie that was at once crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

And as the check came, they served a final parting bite: two more vanilla cookies as petit fours that we chewed as we waddled out into the Hawaiian night thinking “That was worth every penny and the plane ticket to get here!”

Alan Wong's Honolulu
1857 S King St.
Honolulu, HI 96826

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