Since 1995, hawai‘i’s epicures Have ceremoniously Pulled up to the unassuming office building at 1857 S. king street, handed their keys to valet personnel, and ventured up to the third floor to spend a gourmet evening in the fine-dining oasis known as Alan Wong’s. Many local guests at the restaurant on any given night have watched the namesake chef ’s flavorful career develop over the years, going back to when he was one of the founding chefs of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine in the early ’90s. They’ve also reveled in the palate-expanding journey of the culinary movement as Wong and his fellow chefs transformed the world’s view of the food of paradise from Spam and Hawaiian pizza to a colorful fusion of flavors based on the cultural diversity of Hawai‘i and its vibrant agricultural potential.
Firmly rooted as an island chef, Wong’s unique recipe for Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine remains the gold standard, reaching far beyond the fusion aspect of any dish to reflect the history of the flavors and a philosophy toward cooking that is just as much about community as it is about food—from mentoring young chefs to connecting personally with farmers, guests and neighbors. These days, the chef, who in 2009 cooked with his staﬀfor a lu‘au at the White House, is adding another ingredient to his already extensive approach with a focus on wellness. Wong’s interest in healthful cooking has developed gradually from, among other things, his travel experiences—a trip to the Jeju Food & Wine Festival last year, for one, left him inspired by the way Koreans make up their meals purposefully, choosing ingredients that have a wide range of health benefits. The first dish he shares with me, Taro Poi Gazpacho, is reflective of this. The appetizer looks and tastes like a spring garden, as Wong uses the vivacious Spanish cold soup as his jumping oﬀ point to try something new with poi. To do this, he turns to the process of poi—mixing taro with water—and replaces the aqua portion with a blend of teas made from separately steeping six ingredients, each flowing with flavor and salubrious qualities. “
With poi, normally you add water to it,” explains Wong, a natural when it comes to teaching. “And so I make a mixture of all those teas and instead of water, I put that inside, making it more palatable to the person who doesn’t like poi.”
These nourishing teas are infused with unexpected items like the brown skin of an onion and corn silk, each poised to pamper your body, as Wong recently learned from members of his staﬀ and their families while visiting his Shanghai restaurant. “With less cooking, you retain that nutritional value and the health benefits,” he adds, while pointing out that tomato water and fresh garnishes of cucumber, onion and tomato hint at traditional gazpacho flavors. The resulting poi soup is vividly refreshing, and further illuminated by the sharp acidic accent of pias, a Filipino sour fruit Wong pickles for the dish. “Just think lemon when you eat this,” he advises, handing me a piece of the star-shaped fruit to try.
Wong goes on to share that his palate has changed over the decades to crave more acidic and bitter flavors, not to mention a nice kick from chilies. All these elements come together in our next tasting selection: Tomato Beet, Pineapple Apple, Emma’s Chevre, Pickled Green Papaya, Mui Chamoy. For this simple, deconstructed salad, an heirloom rainbow of local cherry tomatoes and beets are perfect for dipping into a chamoy “dip” inspired by spiced Mexican pickled-fruit sauces. Purply-red droplets of chamoy puree are given some fervor from ancho and guajillo chilies, while chipotle lends its smoky depth. I am reminded of li hing-covered fruit when I use the pineapple and apple to scoop up the thick chamoy, while tart notes of green papaya and shiso buds, both pickled, enhance its sweetness.
Wine director Mark Shishido is ready to complement these starters with his own spin on the house-made chamoy, Pineapple Chamoy Martini. The cocktail is as sophisticated as a martini, indeed, but its radiant flavor sings more to the tune of a margarita, especially with a swig of Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila, which is filtered for diamond-like clarity. In line with Wong’s theme of wellness, Shishido also recommends Daily Elixir, a healthful drink first developed years ago for the restaurant’s ongoing luncheons hosting the senior citizens of Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center. The non-alcoholic, decaﬀeinated and gluten-free beverage blends traditional Hawaiian healing aids, including olena (turmeric) and mamaki (mulberry). Despite olena’s naturally strong, earthy bite, honey and wapini, or Hawai‘ian lemon grass, help to harmonize each gentle sip, while ginger imparts its balancing warmth to the drink.
The golden hue of Daily Elixir mirrors the soft glow of Alan Wong’s elegant dining space, made comfortable by the seamless interplay of patrons enjoying their meals with ease as the organized dance of the open kitchen trots on behind them. At the eatery, gourmands have long swooned over signature fish dishes like Ginger Crusted Onaga, and now Wong’s supreme handling of Kona Kampachi with Moromiso Wheat Berry Salad continues that legacy.
“With the whole side of the fillet, you’re giving the guest the meaty experience, the fatty-belly experience, the fat in between the skin and the meat, and the crispy skin, ” explains Wong, as he presents the dish. “Plus, if you think of utilizing the whole fish, this is it.”
My meal culminates with Makaweli Beef Cheeks and Oxtails Braised in Red Wine and served with Ni‘ihau Lambs Tongue and lemon-kissed parsley salad. Each cut on the plate is not only unique, but one that’s not often served in white tablecloth settings. Wong makes these more exotic bites approachable to patrons by preparing them in a familiar way—cooked in the style of beef bourguignon. This elevation of flavors opens the door for guests to easily taste and appreciate the nuances of each piece. Lambs tongue in particular—something I never dreamed of eating—is exhilarating to try, as its fatty richness and smooth texture makes it surprisingly sumptuous.
This entree also is representative of Wong’s long-standing relationships—and in many cases, friendships—with local vendors, ranchers and farmers. It was through his connection to island ranchers that he was able to secure these specialty cuts of meat and discover the most delicious ways to highlight them on a dinner plate—he was even invited to take the exclusive trip to Ni‘ihau Ranch to see firsthand where the high-quality lamb comes from. The chef ’s bond with Hawai‘i’s purveyors permeates the entire menu, including the dessert that ends my meal with a stream of sunshine. Waialua Naruto Sweet Potato Lemonade showcases a Twin Bridge Farms crop of the root vegetable currently available only to Alan Wong’s. It’s presented like I’ve never had it before, blended into a creamy (though no cream is used), colada-esque drink whose thick, nectary goodness coats my entire mouth in luxury. The delightful viscosity of the sweet potato itself—an ingredient that reminds Wong of the ones he used to have as a young child in Japan—is lightened by the neon brightness of Meyer Lemonade made with fruit from Wailea Agricultural Group (where, interestingly, the trees are pollinated by bees from Wong’s Adopt-a-Beehive program). As a fitting final sip to an enriching meal, this cool treat shatters the notion that dessert has to be filled with unhealthy ingredients to be utterly indulgent and satisfying.
Patrons may take pleasure in these intricate and healthful flavors on the restaurant’s current dinner menu. And while Alan Wong’s classic interpretations of island fare are still there for the tasting, it doesn’t hurt to know that Hawai‘i’s crowned cuisine continues to grow in a most appetizing direction.