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Dining: Two at the Top: Then and Now

Revisiting the classics.


(page 2 of 4)

Wong's dining room is probably too small by half, but wraps you in a warm embrace. That mai tai on the tray will make you rethink mai tais.

Photo: Olivier Koning

“We’ve never had anything like this,” said my friends. “The flavors are brilliant.” Well, actually, the textures.

In ’95, I’d complained that the food was a trifle histrionic. I compared the slambang flavors, the ubiquity of chili peppers in Wong’s food, to Whitney Houston’s relentlessly repetitive version of “I will always l-oooo-ve YOU,” sung at the top of her lungs.

After 15 years, Wong’s flavors are still there, but more adult, daring to be a little simpler. More Diana Krall than Whitney Houston. For instance, the tomato salad is one perfect red tomato from Richard Ha’s Hamakua Springs Farm on the Big Island—peeled, sliced and reassembled. The kicker here is the dressing, which smacks of li hing mui and puckers with ume. Once again, my California friends had neither seen nor tasted anything like this.

They live in Sonoma, where there’s no dearth of chefs working with fresh, local ingredients. “But the flavor palette is more earthy,” they said. “This is sort of … well, wild and tropical.”

All that was warmup. We had entrées cut down to small portions. Even better: The ladies would get one preparation, the gentleman another. For instance, the ladies’ butter-poached Kona lobster sat over taro and Japanese imo(sweet potato). You would have thought this was wonderful until you tasted the gentlemen’s version, which came sprinkled in black pepper atop a crab dumpling, swimming in some kind of deft garlic jus.

The only other restaurant I’ve ever seen do this doubling of the courses is Tru, the celebrated Chicago eatery presided over by the husband wife team of Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand.

Wong’s lobster was both his own and as world-class as anything you might get at Tru (or Jean Georges in New York or Restaurant Gary Danko in California). For several reasons: the quality of the ingredients, the understatement, the nerve to let pepper notes predominate the seasoning. I remember nothing that controlled-yet-spectacular from 1995.

There were, of course, two different fishes in the fish course. The ladies got a Wong classic, still on the menu from 1995, a ginger-crusted onaga atop a bright yellow miso vinaigrette, a remarkably light sauce for a delicate fish. The gentlemen got a powerhouse steamed opakapaka with pork-hash topping, swimming in a truffle nage (nage is essentially a broth in which you can either cook or serve seafood). A nage is kind of thin, so Wong gave it substance by floating tapioca pearls in the mix.

Finally, the meat course. The lamb chops came topped with macadamia nuts and a touch of coconut—perhaps the only overdone note in the whole meal. “Ah, I love lamb chops,” said my friend, “but I’m getting overwhelmed.” It was already a good lamb chop on an excellent red wine lamb jus, and that should be enough for everyone.

But you can’t blame Wong for complicating a dish, because sometimes he hits. The other meat course was a wondrous bit of short rib that had first been braised so that it yielded tenderly to the fork, then grilled like it was kalbi. To continue the Korean theme, its undersauce had a touch of ko choo jang, but just a touch, no more, nice control with that fiery red chili paste. OK, OK, so the dish also had a ginger shrimp on top, which was not strictly necessary. But it was good.

So to dessert. At first we were brought two, and I thought, good deal, only two. For people from California, the two were perfect. One was “The Coconut,” which isn’t a coconut at all, but coconut ice cream shaped like a half coconut and coated with chocolate. What really makes this dish is the colorful array of fresh tropical fruit across the plate. “What do you call this fruit that looks like stars?” asked one of my guests. Er, star fruit.

The second was a dessert sampler made from Waialua chocolate. Honestly, one of these platters is good for two or three people because pastry chef Michelle Karr outdoes herself. There’s a spoonful of chocolate crème brûlée, a puff of warm chocolate cheesecake, chocolate gelato and various chocolate crunch bars. There are even little sea-salt caramels in chocolate. I tasted one and made a grab for the other. Alas, too late.

But no, we weren’t going to get away with only two desserts, because there was a yuzu and lemon tart, which is apparently Wong’s favorite dessert. I don’t even remember tasting it because I got fascinated by the Kula strawberries Karr fashioned into a beautiful update of strawberries Romanoff.

The strawberries swam in a bright red soup of strawberry and hibiscus. Out of the bowl rose a graceful arch that held Big Island Dairy goat-cheese panna cotta, a goat-cheese sorbet and a bit of sabayon made with Hawaiian Vanilla.

I love adult desserts and seldom have had one better, the sharp goat-cheese flavors totally under control, balancing the sweetness. “Nobody orders that,” confided our waiter. “Just don’t tell people it contains goat cheese,” I suggested.

I’d been drinking wine by the glass and even by the half glass to match the courses as dinner progressed. My favorite was the Talbott chardonnay Cuvee Audrey 2006—which you seldom see and I am not sure I recommend with food. Still, I love the way the Talbott blasts into your mouth like a cornerback blitzing on third-and-long. You think, Oh, no, no, another monster chard from California. Then mid-palate, it suddenly transforms itself into an 80-pound ballerina, dancing across eggs without cracking a shell. Finally, it drifts away like the memory of, ah, that person you wanted to spend just a little more time with. Nice wine.

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