Quintessential Hawaiian

Alan Wong’s Amasia restaurant in Maui pays tribute to the star chef’s colorful lineage.

While Amasia conjures images of massive continental drifts of the far future, Hawai’i would now associate the word with the cultural amalgamation of flavors dished up by pioneer chef Alan Wong at his newest restaurant at the Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

A serene culinary haven in the midst of resort opulence, Alan Wong’s Amasia—apropos to its dramatic Japanese teahouse design—rests on a lily pad-blanketed koi pond that flows underneath the restaurant’s various dining alcoves. The charming wooden structure, built and imported from Kyoto along with a hundred ton of granite rocks from Mt. Fuji in 1990, evokes the kind of old-world nostalgia that could inspire a few haikus. When the hotel’s original kaiseki restaurant closed, the space remained vacant for years until Wong signed on finding a perfect home for his signature cuisine in the Valley Isle. “We’ve been wanting to come to Maui for the longest time, 10 years in fact,” says Wong.

Following a $2 million renovation, Amasia opened in the spring of 2012. Diners wind through the maze-like venue to discover the setting that fits their evening’s fancy.

They can opt for the more casual cocktail lounge, robata grill or one of the two sushi bars. Sheer curtains enclose the tatami rooms for privacy and the more formal dining pavilion in the heart of the restaurant.

The menu pays homage to Hawai’i’s pristine harvests and history, as well as Wong’s cultural lineage (Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian) and worldly travels. Born in Tokyo, his mother raised him with Japanese food and though he’s been living in Hawai’i since he was five years old, he has returned to Japan countless times where his family also ran a restaurant for 10 years. “Mine is a cuisine that’s grounded in Hawai’i’s plantation and immigrant past, but with a twist,” shares Wong.

A few classic dishes from his O’ahu flagship are cleverly added to the menu. Pulled from staple King Street offerings are the chilled red and yellow tomato soup topped with a Parmesan crisp and grilled cheese kalua pig sandwich lightly brushed with foie gras; poached and peeled whole tomato on a bed of fanned cucumber carpaccio atop a savory sweet li hing mui dressing; ginger crusted onaga finished with miso sesame vinaigrette; and the Korean-style soy braised short ribs with fermented red pepper ko choo jang sauce.

Not to be overshadowed by the classics, some of Amasia’s newly conceptualized dishes are poised to be perennial favorites. Thrill your palate with the uni shooter done with leche de tigre, a punchy Peruvian citrus-chili ceviche marinade.

The shoyu duck bao buns are also sensationally delicious. The order comes with two baos, relatively smaller in portion, heated on a griddle so that it’s a little crisp in the middle but still light as air, and dotted with a hoisin and Sriracha on top.

Shrimp chawanmushi is exceptionally paired with mushrooms, served on a flat dish and drizzled with soy sauce and truffle oil. “You’re not supposed to add soy sauce to this classic dish,” says Wong. “This is inspired simply because that is how I like to eat it.”

Italian meatballs are swapped with ‘ahi tuna and dipped in angry sauce, essentially spicy tomato sauce that is reflective of Wong’s recent trip to Spain. The liberal use of tomatoes is evident throughout the menu for good reason. “In Hawai’i, we have two seasons: rain or shine,” says Wong. “So we are able to enjoy excellent tomatoes all year round.”

On my first visit to Amasia, chef de cuisine Chris Damskey had presented a bright and excellent tomato gazpacho poured tableside on a gorgeously composed plate of delicately sliced daikon, plum, blackberry, strawberry and daikon or kaiware sprouts, finished with a squeeze of calamansi that rested on the brim. Th e perfect medley of flavors from the fresh daikon and the citrusy sweet fruits balanced the salt in the gazpacho and made for a memorable dish. His second presentation was equally lovely—a nest of sweet roasted baby carrots and clover sprouts tangled around a generous scoop of Surfing Goat Dairy chevre and crunchy macadamia nuts lightly tossed in a sesame ponzu vinaigrette.

Damskey recently comes from Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Restaurant Group, and well versed in the snout-to-tail style of cooking. His resume boasts of supremely recognizable dining institutions—NoLa, Aquavit, Charlie Trotter’s, Aqua and Restaurant Joel. His very capable sous chef DeeAnn Tsurumaki hails from the Peninsula Hotel’s Felix restaurant. Newly hired sushi chef Robert Juan who comes from Sushisamba at Th e Palazzo Las Vegas complete this stellar trifecta.

Desserts are delicately done and totally satisfying. The wildly popular ginger-marinated Maui Gold pineapple is frozen then finely shaved atop vanilla panna cotta, haupia sorbet, coconut with liliko’i sauce. A bar of Kula strawberry and li hing mui cheesecake rests on graham crackers layered with yuzu curd and drizzled with crack seed dressing. Decadent Waialua chocolate pudding is made creamier with Hawaiian vanilla sabayon and capped with a sesame tuile.

It is not surprising that Amasia’s “best of” accolades have started to pour. Heralded as one of Hawai’i’s culinary masters, Wong is one of the 12 founders of Hawai’i Regional Cuisine in 1991, creating a new norm of sustainability for the next generation of industry toques. He has successfully ran his first Alan Wong’s restaurant since 1996, and followed with the launch of the Pineapple Room inside Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1999.

Wong also co-chairs the Hawai’i Food and Wine Festival with Chef Roy Yamaguchi. Its third installment last September gathered 70 highly acclaimed chefs from all over the world at sold-out events on O’ahu and Maui to celebrate the bounty of the islands and share their distinct style of cuisine. “The synergy in this network is important for Hawai’i,” says Wong. “We put the spotlight on Hawai’i, its agricultural products, the culture of Hawai’i, the people of Hawai’i and how we eat.” With Hawai’i Tourism Authority on board, there are plans to expand to the Hawai’i Island next year and eventually take the festival statewide.

Hawai’i’s ascend as a culinary mecca is just beginning. Wong remembers the days when chefs could only find asparagus and hearts of palm from the can and commends the local food movement’s steady progress. “Fast forward to 22 years, we have the most number of farmers’ markets available,” says Wong. “We have the most ingredients available to cook than ever before. The chefs are asking for diversity.”

Sustainability is a life-long commitment for Wong and his team, as it should be for the rest of us. “We import 85 percent of our food,” shares Wong, whose exemplary work extends out of the kitchen and into the core of local community. “The department of agriculture did a study that if we move this by 10 percent in our lifetime, we would’ve created 2,300 jobs, $6 million in taxes. Farmers collectively would earn $94 million more than they do today, and for our own economy, another $188 million. Plus, if a tsunami hits, how do we feed ourselves?”

While that is a heavy, albeit necessary, question to ponder, I’m halfway hoping the answer involves more duck bao buns.

Alan Wong’s Amasia is located at Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, 3850 Wailea Alanui Drive, Kihei. For more information call (808) 891-3954.

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