(visited November, 2003)
Ring, ring… Ring, ring… Calm and collected, “Aloha, Alan Wong’s, how may I help you?” Very agitated and nervous, “Yes, I have a reservation for one this evening under the name *.” I just arrived at the airport and unfortunately they have lost my luggage… what is your dress code? Dress casual,… well, I’m really not sure that what I’m wearing even counts as that. Well no, I don’t have shorts on, but I have on denim jeans… I’ve just had a non-stop ten-hour flight from-“
Reassuringly, “No problem, you’re in Hawaii… relax, enjoy, that’s our way here.” Still agitated, “Are you absolutely sure? Unfortunately, I’m all booked for the rest of my stay here and tonight’s the only night I can come otherwise, I would reschedule- ” “There is absolutely no need to explain. If it makes you feel better, we’ll seat you at the chef’s table away from the dining room.” Much calmer, “Oh, that would be great. Thank you, I will see you in an hour.” “Very good M. *, we look forward to your visit. Mahalo and aloha!” God, I love Hawaii… I LOVE Hawaii. Here I was, jetlagged in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and Adidas Ultrastars, and I was on my way to Alan Wong’s – one of the most renowned restaurants in the world. Oh, the fact that it was 76 degrees with a slight breeze didn’t hurt either.
After checking into my hotel, washing my face, and finding no luggage to unpack, off I flitted towards Alan Wong’s, unaware of the tremendous experience awaiting me.
Alan Wong’s is tucked away on the third floor of an unassuming building on an unassuming street in, what appeared at night, an unexceptional commercial district. I would have completely missed the front door had there not been a valet and a doorman standing outside. It restaurant seemed almost remote. Then again, having just come from the tourist laden Waikiki strip, I suppose anything would seem remote.
An elevator in the small lobby ascended me up to food heaven where a beaming receptionist was waiting to welcome me. Soothing harp music played in the soundtrack of my mind.
The elevator doors opened. The smile on the angel at the receptionist turned to a sour wince. The harps stopped. Cinderella was jerked back into the reality of arriving at the ball in rags… boy, was I embarrassed. She actually winced. It must have showed because she immediately rebounded from her momentary shock and escorted me to my seat at the “chef’s table” – a counter lined with bar chairs running along the pass of the open kitchen. Thankfully, partitions and ample foliage blocked my unsightly self from the modestly sized main dining hall. Through the leafy flora I caught glimpses of diners dressed anywhere from suit and tie to “Hawaiian” formal (Hawaiian shirt and khakis for men, floral moo moo’s for women).
More at ease, away from the glaring crowds, I felt immediately at home at the counter. For one thing, I had a full view of the kitchen. The chef de cuisine for the evening greeted me as he set a glistening pink fish filet in a frying pan. Another advantage was that I had a great dinner companion, another lone diner and bon vivant sitting two seats down. Throughout the evening, we exchanged ooo’s and ahhh’s, as well as life stories.
A server, my server for the rest of the evening, Lily, magically appeared and welcomed me. She presented me with a menu and took my drink order. There were too many tempting choices on the á la carte to make a decision. The seven-course tasting menu seemed a bit much. So, it didn’t take me long to decide on the chef’s five-course tasting menu. When Lily returned, I placed the order and sat back. She disappeared and a few seconds later, my order chatted out on the printer on the pass. Of course, since I was sitting in front of the chef, he knew my order, but still, the rest of the kitchen needed to be clued in.
So engaged was I in conversation with the chef, that was I unaware that my meal was literally materializing right before my eyes. The chef slid my first course across the pass. Lily appeared on queue and lowered plate to the countertop, situating it in front of me.
“M. *, for your first course, the chef presents his Appetizer Duo: “Soup and Sandwich” and “Chinese Roast Duck Nacho.”
A sliver of tender roasted duck with crispy skin lay on a fried wonton “nacho” chip – a perfect example of Wong’s “fusion” approach that first made him famous in the early nineties. A small dollop of avocado salsa with a hint of fresh lime provided a wonderfully creamy and cool compliment to the spicy crunchiness of the nacho.
The “soup and sandwich” wasn’t any old soup and sandwich you have at home on a cold wintry day. This was the soup and sandwich they serve in food heaven. A ying-yang swirl of chilled yellow and red tomato soups glistened in a martini glass. A perfectly crisp papadam covered the mouth of the glass. Perched atop the paper thin wafer was the sandwich: brie cheese, foie gras and a spear of chive tucked between two buttery brioche toasts. The papadam and sandwiches enjoyed a quick dip in the soup before taking a nice long swim in my mouth and a welcomed dive into my stomach. The rich luscious foie and cheese with the slightly toasted brioche and the cool sweet-tangy soup was a swanky party of flavors.
The second course was a Ginger Crusted Onaga. A filet of Onaga, red snapper, mounted on a mound of warm fresh corn, shiitake and enoki mushrooms laced with an enchanting miso sesame vinaigrette. The crispy, almost flaky, ginger crusted skin provided the perfect protective shell to delicate meat of the fish underneath. The flavors were wonderful: ocean, field and earth all in a shallow bowl.
Next, a Goliath seared Diver Scallop came nestled on a modest bed of gooey shrimp and dried scallop risotto. The risotto, flecked with black truffles, was as rich in consistency as in flavor. The beefiness of the truffle and dried scallop shreds incorporated in the risotto lent the perfect oomph to the mildly sweetness of the silky and warm, but barely cooked scallop.
Fourth course featured Kiawe Grilled Beef Tenderloin. This “deconstructed” course came artfully plated on a foot-and-a-half long rectangular plate. The tenderloin, grilled over Kiawe wood (akin to Mesquite) sat to the far left. The meat was tender and perfectly grilled rare, as ordered. The sweet smoky aroma of Kiawe brought out a deep bodied wine-like flavor of the meat so fine that the spots of au jus were hardly necessary, but certainly welcomed.
Evenly spaced to its right were: a pile of sautéed Hon Shimeji Mushrooms, a neat Lincoln log-stack of Walalua Asparagus and on the opposite end of the plate from the beef, a beautifully fried mashed potato fritter. The mushrooms were meaty and toothsome with the texture of shiitake and the flavor of oyster mushrooms. The asparagus were prettier than they tasted. But, the showcase, was the fritter. Imagine a crisp crusty hull of a hush puppy, except instead of a mealy bread interior, a molten core of pillowy mashed potato with black truffle.
I’m not usually a sweet tooth, so when the parade of entrees end, I’ve usually seen the best of my meal… but not so in heaven…
… So, last, but certainly not least, dessert. Remember, here in heaven, one is not good enough. The finale was as doubly enjoyable as the appetizer. I’m generally not a sweet tooth, but I’m always a sucker for frozen treats and chocolate. Of course, the “god” in this heaven’s kitchen knew this about me. My angel fluttered over and announced, “M. *, for your last course, the chef is pleased to present a dessert duo: ‘Coconut’ and ‘Chocolate “Crunch Bars””
To my left sat a precisely sliced half of a softball-sized ‘coconut” frozen to the plate at an angle like a satellite dish. The white “flesh” of the coconut was Haupia (traditionally a coconut milk pudding) sorbet. The brown outer “hull” was a shell of dark chocolate studded with bits of toasted pistachio. Spilling out of the hollow of the coconut was a cornucopia of fresh berries drizzled with Lilikoi (passion fruit) sauce and a sprig of mint. I didn’t know they served porn in heaven, but this was no kids’ dessert – this was for adults only – rated X for both the eyes and the taste buds. With sinful abandon, I ate the whole thing.
To the right, easily overlooked next to the festive Coconut, but not to be underestimated, were two large thumb-sized chocolate “bars.” I don’t care for candy bars, but these were extraordinary. Luscious layers of dark chocolate mousse sandwiched between layers of milk chocolate Macadamia nut crunch. I was a converted man. I’ll never look, or think, of a candy bar in the same way again.
Just as I was slipping into a stupor and a chorus of harps began to play, my angelic server floated by to clear my plate and ask me if she could get anything else. I said that she could, but that she probably shouldn’t. Lily giggled and shot me a knowing glance… she understood the devilish temptations she was serving.
This flirtatious and personal interaction was representative of the charming, considerate and consistent service I received throughout the evening – despite my disheveled state. Everyone of my needs had been anticipated. Drinks never fell below half-level, utensils never wanted, napkin was neatly folded during a restroom break, and courses delivered with intuitive precision.
Although sitting at the pass took away the excitement and anticipation of a multi-coursed meal, it gave me the extraordinary opportunity to see all of my courses (and many others) being prepared. Also, a lone diner, I welcomed the conversation and interaction with the chef and kitchen staff. In fact, I learned a lot about Hawaiian regional food, and got some fabulous tips about other must-visit eateries in the area.
I felt sad leaving Lily, the chef, his staff, and especially the receptionist, the gatekeeper, who had so generously welcomed me despite my denim and hoodie. Upon my departure, instead of a wince, she smiled and asked if I needed a taxi called.
The five courses left me only $65 dollars lighter, but infinitely more fulfilled and satisfied. Most of the entrees I saw were in the mid to upper twenties.
As I stepped out into the cool breezy night, I realized that my rags were still rags, but that the magic of the ball was over. How could the rest of my stay in the paradisiacal Hawaii compare with that first night among the angels and the clouds?
Alan Wong’s was, simply put, heavenly.
Alan Wong’s * * * * * *
1857 South King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826