Review: MW Restaurant
The new MW Restaurant serves food with influences from two of Hawaii’s most beloved kitchens, Alan Wong's and Zippy's.
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK
MW Restaurant’s menu, stripped down, reads like a Hawaii diner’s—fried chicken, ahi poke, Portuguese bean soup, oxtail stew, kalbi, tonkatsu. The dessert list, too (almost as long as the entrees), gives a survey of familiar comfort: candy bars, cheesecake, chocolate banana cream pie.
Except nothing is what you expect: An oxtail stew and rice is an oxtail deboned, stuffed with more meat and braised, set on top of a beef-stew risotto. The banana cream pie doesn’t resemble a pie at all, but is instead chocolate, bananas, custard and whipped cream layered in a jar and topped with an oatmeal crumble.
This is local food interpreted by two former Alan Wong chefs, with a little French Laundry and a lot of Zippy’s thrown in.
Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka, the wife-and-husband team of MW Restaurant, each spent almost 20 years working alongside Alan Wong—Michelle for most of those years as pastry chef and Wade as chef de cuisine. She attended the Culinary Institute of America and staged at some of America’s temples of haute dining, such as Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant and Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry, a gig she got by sending a toothbrush with her application: She was willing to do whatever it took to get into that kitchen, even if it meant scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush. As for Wade, while he also spent some time at The French Laundry, his most touted credentials are Zippy’s and Alan Wong’s. But you don’t need a bio to taste those influences in almost every one of his dishes, from the Chinese roast-duck open-face sandwich, a tribute to the gravy-covered, hot turkey sandwich at Zippy’s, to the ahi nachos with avocado salsa and won ton chips, resembling Alan Wong’s ahi and avocado stack.
THE OPEN KITCHEN AT MW RESTAURANT.
THE AHI POKE AT MW IS DECKED OUT WITH IKURA AND UNI, AND TOPPED WITH CRISPY RICE CRACKERS.
At its best, MW dials into the dishes we love and takes them over the top. The ahi poke is really a layering of spicy tuna, ikura, cubes of ahi and uni, topped with crispy rice crackers, a sort of inverted poke bowl with everything we’ve ever wanted in one. The fried chicken is a take on Korean fried chicken—boneless sesame and kochujang-lacquered pieces with extra-crispy skin, served with hearts of palm and kimchee cucumbers to bundle into lettuce leaves. With the mochi-crusted fish (possibly our favorite dish at MW) Wade takes childhood memories of his mother’s fried mochi and combines it with a seasonal catch—grated mochi pressed onto fish gives it a wonderful, crunchy surface once it hits hot oil.
The lemon meringue brulee comes with a teeny lemon meringue pie on top.
For desserts, to which you should pay as much attention as the rest of the menu, the lemon meringue brulee is a must. It marries our addiction to bubble drinks with creme brulee: A crisp, torched sugar crust seals a parfait of tart lemon sorbet, chewy jellies, tapioca and creamy custard. And, in case you’re disappointed this isn’t a lemon meringue pie, there’s a teeny one perched on top. Something as simple as a bread pudding for Sunday brunch can change your life: It’s topped with caramelized apples, a boozy Calvados sabayon and lemon zest for spark. On one occasion, Michelle sprinkled on top some of her new creation—“grainola,” which tastes like Honey Smacks cereal reengineered for the natural foods aisle, crunchy, sweet, earthy—does she sell this? You wonder.
At its worst, though, dishes at MW leave you longing for the original inspiration, straight up, without the fuss. The hot BLT sandwich has little distinguishing texture or flavor—I want toasted bread and crisp bacon, not cooked lettuce, braised pork belly and gravy. Only the marinated tomatoes on top and crispy chicharrones save the dish.
Certain dishes, when shared family style, can blur together. The sauced, open-face hot sandwiches—such as the aforementioned roast-duck sandwich, plus the pork tonkatsu and sukiyaki pork sandwich—can be sublime comfort, but after a series of them, lose their novelty. Vegetables, never really a highlight in local-style food, also show up in similar variations on the tonkatsu, kalbi, salmon and mochi-crusted fish plates, usually pickled or spicy salads of chard, eggplant and cucumber. Every fruit gets a different treatment in the desserts—why not vegetables then?
The restaurant is best enjoyed during the day, when the tall, open room is filled with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Wade seems to hit his stride with the lunch and brunch menus, which feature slightly more casual fare in the just-under-$20 range.
At night, the overhead lights shine a little too bright, and the restaurant that tries to be more casual than Alan Wong’s, ditching the white linen, still charges high-end prices (around $30 an entree). Wade, in between leaving Alan Wong’s and opening MW Restaurant, dallied in pop-up venues and bar/nightclub kitchens, serving some of the same plates for half the price. Part of me acknowledges that the new prices are the cost of a large brick-and-mortar Ala Moana location; the other part expects more now that he has a 1,300-square-foot, permanent kitchen.
But what he does have in this new space is his wife, who, just as at Alan Wong’s, continues to do wonders with desserts, from haute to homey. Michelle has resurrected the dessert menu, breathing life into the most static, easily ignored part of the meal at many restaurants, proving that it can be as much a channel of a chef’s creativity as savory dishes. Whether it’s her complex take on an affogato, with dehydrated chocolate mousse, coffee gelato and ice, or the chocolate chip cookies or tiny loaf of banana bread that she sends off with you as you leave, she merges comfort and surprise in a single package. Which is what MW does best.
MW restaurant, 1538 Kapiolani Blvd., #107, 955-6505, mwrestaurant.com.