In a nutshell: The exquisite, refined Hawaiian fare at this Honolulu hotspot is truly ono (“delicious”).
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Yes,” I replied confidently. Despite my assured confirmation, I wasn’t entirely sure myself– this area of Waikiki seemed rather suburban in comparison to the heavily populated areas of Waikiki Beach and Kalakaua Avenue.
A few minutes later, we rounded the corner and I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a shiny golden pineapple emblazoned on an awning a few buildings down.
James Beard Award-winning Chef Alan Wong opened his eponymous restaurant on April 15, 1995. Located in a nondescript commercial building, the shimmering restaurant on the third floor is worlds apart from the utter unremarkableness at street level.
Chef Wong was a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine Inc., the culinary movement established in 1991 that aims to “inventively blends Hawaii’s diverse, ethnic flavors with the cuisine of the world… [from] cattle raised on the upland pastures of Hawaii Island [to] fruits and vegetables grown from rich, volcanic soil in Upcountry Maui [to] some of the best quality fish in the world.” His restaurant group embraces “‘Taste Hawaii’ at every level– the ingredients we use, the dishes we prepare, the relationships we build and the service we bring.”
The interactive drink menu is displayed on an iPad, while food options are presented on traditional bound menus.
The Tropical Colada is a refreshing twist on the classic piña colada, adding delicate lychee to fresh pineapple and smooth coconut cream.
The meal begins with ciabatta-style rolls, fresh baked and warm to the touch. The plush rolls are delivered with a dish of tongue-tingling cayenne pepper aioli. If you want a kick, slather the spread on; otherwise, enjoy the bread with its crusty exterior and tender interior on its own.
Presentation is everything at Alan Wong’s, and “Da Bag” certainly did not fail in this department: upon the arrival of this dish, the waiter placed an enormous foil bag in front of us reminiscent of a bursting bag of Jiffy Pop. I half expected to find a pile of popcorn within. He whipped out a pair of forks from nowhere and proceeded to stab them into the center of the bag, revealing…
…a healthy mound of kalua pig surrounded by steamed clams, resting on a bed of tender spinach and shiitake mushrooms. Cooking in a foil pouch keeps the food within ultra-moist and seals the flavors inside, enabling the restaurant to emphasize the traditional succulence of the pulled pork, providing a substantial portion that could have easily been an entree.
This appetizer makes me want to “escargot style” all my seafood from this point forward. The pot featured seven golf ball-sized holes and had a meaty piece of exquisitely-fresh lobster (sourced from the western end of Hawaii) bathing in red onion butter in each pocket. Copious amounts of parmesan cheese provided a rich finishing touch.
I can never turn down short rib. When prepared properly, its moist, unctuous nature can bring people to their knees: Alan Wong’s is no exception. The thick squares of beef are not only braised until fork-tender, but also grilled for a quick sear and nice crust. The Asian-based marinade penetrated the meat deeply, with gochujang (a fiery and pungent Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, and fermented soybeans) artfully brushed along the plate. A kick from gingery, plump shrimp, and this plate overall was a unique Hawaiian surf-and-turf.
The mashed potatoes I chose as my side (as opposed to white or brown rice) were silky smooth, topped with a just-broiled crust of grated parmesan cheese. A hearty complement to the beef and shrimp.
Like short rib, I can never turn down miso-marinated fish either. Once used for preservation purposes for long overseas voyages, miso marination offers an umami aspect that enhances any food it comes in contact with. The three main components–miso, alcohol, and sugar–enable a nicely-charred surface and tender, flavorful interior. Black cod is the perfect choice for this type of preparation; its flesh is saturated with fat since it lives in deep water and its meat flakes nicely instead of disintegrating, giving the fish a buttery texture that melts in your mouth. Simply put, Alan Wong’s version is perfection.
As we aren’t fans of the prickling effects of horseradish, we opted out of the wasabi sauce intended to dress the dish. The Otsuji Farms mustard cabbage vinegared rice was excellent, slightly sticky like sushi rice and perfuming the entire plate.
We were far too stuffed to dig into full platters of dessert, but the options were tempting, from Waialua Chocolate “Crunch Bars” (Layers of Milk Chocolate Macadamia Nut Crunch and Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse) to Kula “Strawberries Romanoff” (Hawaii Island Dairy Goat Cheese Panna Cotta, Kula Strawberry-Hibiscus Consommé, Goat Cheese Sorbet). The dusted bite-sized caramels sent out with the check satisfied any sweet tooth cravings we had.
Alan Wong’s seems to pull out all the stops for every patron that walks through its elevator doors, but especially so on the birthday front. At the beginning of our meal, the birthday girl was surprised with a personalized menu signed by the staff on duty that evening– she was able to take it home with her at the end of the night.
At the end of our meal, they whisked out a gorgeous strawberry cheesecake, the pink swirls on its surface reminiscent of barista coffee art. Rich and creamy with hints of fruit throughout, we somehow found room to fit this in our full stomachs. A silky ball of ice cream atop graham cracker crumbs mirrored the cheesecake next to it.
We also enjoyed a primly packaged box of homemade cookies baked on the premises. Crisp and sweet, these were gobbled up quickly and brought back memories of the wonderful meal.
Impeccable service–a genuine warmth from every waitstaff member, thorough understanding of the menu, water glass magically refilled after scarcely a sip, napkin folded the moment one excused herself, and so on–rounded out the remarkable food. Save up your pennies for a special night out: it’s worth it.
1857 S King Street