Dining: Two at the Top: Then and Now

Revisiting the classics.


Published:

(page 1 of 4)


The kitchen counter at Alan Wong's holds the local ingredients that make his cuisine "so Hawaii."

Photo: Olivier Koning

At the last Hale Aina Award gala, there I was, all dressed up, seated at a table with various culinary luminaries, contentedly munching a seared diver scallop from Le Bistro and a garlic-herb marinated Big Island filet mignon from Merriman’s, when someone asked me an inconvenient question.

Restaurants such as Alan Wong’s and Chef Mavro were walking away with Hale Aina Awards. “How come you never review restaurants like that?” I was asked. I did, too, I sputtered.

“When?”

Uh. I had to check. Turns out the last time I reviewed Alan Wong’s was in 1995. Fifteen years ago. Mavro, 1999. I’d review restaurants like these when they were new, then maybe write them up for a few national publications or Web sites, but never return for a second HONOLULU review. I was overdue. I had some guests in from California, so I said, Let me take you to a couple of our best, see how they are doing.

 

Alan Wong's Restaurant
1857 S. King St., Honolulu  // 949-2526  // Valet Parking, major credit cards  //  alanwongs.com


Butter-poached lobster two ways: Great on a taro/potato cake (below) and even better on a crab dumpling, seasoned with black pepper.

Photos: Olivier Koning  

It’s amusing, in the light of his subsequent ascent into culinary stardom, that in 1995 I had to explain who Alan Wong was. The whole story, how he’d come to prominence on the Big Island, opening on Oahu when he got backing from the publicity-shy family that owned Zippy’s. I had to explain his location was improbable, the third floor of a nondescript commercial building a block from the McCully Zippy’s.

The building is still nondescript, except that everyone in town now knows it as the home of Alan Wong’s. There’s a little anticipatory buzz in the elevator, from a crowd of well-dressed folks who know it has two doors. You turn around and face the back and, three floors later, it opens into the warm and crowded embrace of Wong’s entry space.

In 1995, the dining room seemed large enough. In retrospect, Wong and his backers were too conservative; it could afford to be at least half again as large. Try to get a Saturday night table. Days ahead, the best I could get was a table at 5:30. (I never pull strings. I just call.)

In my ’95 review, I marveled at the appetizers. My first visit I ate five and never got to the entrées. Many of the original appetizers have disappeared into culinary oblivion: duck with guacamole, a Thai-style beef salad, a quesadilla that tasted a lot like a manapua.  Also missing was the classic Wong shooter of tomato water, fennel, herbs and a single opihi. However, that’s such a signature dish, I am guessing you could get one if you asked.

Determined not to duplicate my 1995 appetizer overload, I simply gave the server a price per head for the four of us, and asked him to bring us small dishes. None of the three people I’d brought along had ever been to Alan Wong’s before, and the two from California were unlikely to return any time soon. Could we please get a range of tastes?

This was an effective strategy. We began with three small appetizers, the first a Wong innovation that’s become famous. It’s the “soup and sandwich,” a martini glass full of cold tomato soup, not much more than liquefied Big Island tomatoes, in two colors, which had been so carefully poured that the two colors created the yin-yang symbol.

Perched above the soup on a Parmesan crisp was the sandwich—grilled cheese with kalua pork and foie gras, the foie gras just enough to enrich the taste of the pork.

I realized why I’d brought people who’d never eaten here before. This course blew them away. “Does it keep getting better?” one asked.

Yes. The next thing we had was so familiar on Hawaii menus that I would have just ho-hummed it—a stack of ahi poke atop a layer of guacamole and another layer of wonton chips. Wong’s version is particularly well-executed, especially the poke, which is essentially chopped sashimi.
 

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