Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Alan Wong's

The Dining Room and Kitchen at Alan Wong's

In the many times I've returned to Honolulu after moving away in 1996, I haven't really explored the big hitters in this towns' fine dining scene. Sure, I've taken dates to places like John Dominis and Hoku's, or have been to high-end Japanese joints like Imanas-Tei, but outside of frequenting the Roy's in Baltimore, I really haven't explored Honolulu's fine dining scene.

With this trip, I wanted to end all of that. The problem is that it's difficult to break away from all the great local joints to spend money to eat at some snazzy joint - especially one that's hard to find.

But I had it all planned out. I would take this one night to eat somewhere nice. The choice was between Mavro and Alan Wong's - two icons on Hawaii's food scene. The question was: which one? Chef Mike had interned at Mavro during his years at KCC's cooking school and recommended I eat there. Others who had been to both (like Sree) suggested going to Alan Wong's first. Alan Wong's won out.

Local Style Condiments - Chili Pepah Watah & Shoyu

Like I said, it's kinda hard to find. Located on South King Street, you're expecting a street-level restaurant with a sign that let's you know that you've arrived. Instead, Alan Wong's is located on the third floor of a very non-descript office building. I passed it more than a couple of times looking for it until I punched it into my iPhone and started looking for an exact address - an address other than "on King street between Kalakaua and McCully."

Once found, the only thing alerting you to the fact that you've arrived is the valet guy. He's just casually sitting there with the valet parking sign that says in small letters "Alan Wong's." It's way too easy to miss.

The building itself is nothing special, neither is the lobby, or the elevator slowly rising to the third floor. In fact, the concrete building looks kinda drab and you wonder if this place really is going to be a hit. Then the elevator door opens and suddenly you're bathed in warm incandescent light at a proper illumination. The restaurant is warm, inviting and the hostesses are friendly and welcoming. I didn't have a reservation.

Passion Fruit Iced Tea with simple syrup

Perhaps it's not a wise move to drop into one of the busiest restaurants in the city without a reservation, but I fancy myself a pirate. If I get a table, great. If not, I've gambled and then I can go to Zippy's. Either way, it's a win-win situation in my mind. But gambling isn't able throwing the dice blindly. It's Wednesday night, not Friday. And it's past nine o'clock and not seven. I'm betting that this mid-week visit, late in the service will increase my chances for landing a table for one. And it pays off.

The hostess is friendly and accommodating. In just a few moments, I'm escorted to a small two-top not too far from the large plate glass windows fronting the King Street side of the building with nice views of the buildings across the streets and the Ko'olau hills in the distance dotted with homes and neighborhoods. This evening hour also means that my view is glittering with lights from those houses in those neighborhoods and makes for a delightful view - like red lava cascading down the mountainside.

Personally speaking, I would have preferred a four top - especially since it's later in the service and it's unlikely that larger parties will be coming in after me (since most people like to eat at 7pm). But maybe this is my penance for arriving without a reservation. It's not uncomfortable (well, maybe the chair is) and I continue on - after I've swapped chairs from another table (one without such a sweeping back that makes me feel as though I'm nearly lying down - I hate those).

Decent Bread

My server, Ryan, stops by to welcome me and ask for my drink order. Iced tea, please - I've already drank way too much on this trip. There's a brief discussion about the menu. I can order a la carte or choose from a five course or seven course tasting menu. The seven course menu is $95.00 or $135.00 with the wine pairing. Maybe I'm jaded or maybe I just have a skewed sense of perception, but $95 seems downright reasonable to me for a tasting menu and I'm going for it. Of course, my perception is probably skewed by the $500 and $900 I ended up spending at per se and L'Arpege, respectively. Skewed indeed.

Actually, I already knew I was going to order the tasting menu. I had looked it up online. My problem in restaurants nowadays is that reading a menu gives me a headache. I don't want to see too many choices. Just give me the best representation of what the kitchen can do. I don't want to think about it too much. I just want to be amazed. So, bring it on.

The first thing that lands on my table is the bread rolls and some sort of soft butter-looking thing. The bread is decent. It's warm and chewy but nothing special. It's not stellar. This is bread that's decently made but it's not the sublime bread experience that I had at Michel Richard's Central. It's good, just not breathtaking.

Chili Pepper & Olive Oil Aioli

Someone this week commented on the increasing frequency of mayonnaise disguised as "aioli" and I have to say "I think they're right." Everywhere I go in Hawaii, from the local plate lunch joint to the fancy fine dining establishment seems obsessed with offering an "aioli." It's freaking everywhere. Almost as if you're not a chef unless you offer some kind of aioli. It reminds me of the baristas' obsession with cardamom. Give it up already, please.

What's accompanying my bread is a chili pepper and olive oil aioli. It's not bad but it doesn't replace butter. How about some locally made, salted butter with chili peppers? Now, that could be amazing. The bread isn't bad but I think with butter it could be quite interesting. The aioli (read: mayonnaise) is good. It's appealing, but it ain't buttery goodness. It's like substituting tofu bacon for the real thing: please don't do it.

Just a few minutes after placing my order, the long procession of courses suddenly starts. I was expecting a bit more time before starting but we're off to the races. In fact, the one thing I note during this dinner is the pace of the courses. It seems fast to me. One course on top of the other. Seven courses in under one and a half hours. I calculated the time: about ten minutes between courses. With all things considered, it's actually not that fast, it just seemed fast. I don't know why.

"Cold Seafood Salad" - Kona Abalone, Lobster & Lump Crab with Abalone Gelee, Soy Katsuo & Green Onion Oil

First up is the "Cold Seafood Salad" (I don't know why they used quotes). It's good. Quite good. Cool, refreshing and slightly acidic and it makes my palate dance. The abalone is firm and chewy and combines wonderfully with the lobster and crab. The gelee is slightly strange but the green onion oil brings it all together. I chomp it down greedily.

"Soup and Sandwich" - Chilled Vine Ripened Hamakua Spring Tomato Soup with Grilled Mozzarella Cheese, Foie Gras and Kalua Pig Sandwich

It's not long before my next course arrives and it's name reminds me of Thomas Keller's penchant for using cute terms to jog the memory. Actually, it reminds me so much of Keller that it almost detracts from the course since I'm thinking that it's no longer cute but just a ripoff of Keller's technique. I work hard to push that thought out of my mind as I taste the sandwich.

The course is a delightful little sandwich of foie gras and kalua pig on toasted brioche. It's tasty and served on top of a parmesan crisp that adds a complimentary zing the counterbalance the richness of the kalua, though the foie's flavor is lost against the kalua.

The Tomato Soup of "Soup and Sandwich"

The soup itself is served underneath the rest in a yellow and red ying yang pattern that's visually appealing and a bit gag-me-in-the-mouth-with-a-spoon cute. The tomato soup tastes alive and refreshing. It's seasoned just right to allow the natural flavor of the tomato pop. It's served in a martini glass, which normally hate but for some reason, it works here.

Actually, thinking more about it, it's not the name that puts me off, it's the use of quotes. That's very Keller-esque and, I think, rather unnecessary. Just let it be Soup and Sandwich, not "Soup and Sandwich" - it comes off a bit pretentious and contrived that way. Of course, I'm probably just as guilty of doing the same. I make a mental note to myself to stop that practice in the future.

Kabayaki Unagi Foie Gras Pork Hash Terrine -

By this point, I'm starting to feel the pressure from the kitchen. The courses seem to be flying out towards me at a high rate of speed. It's still ten minutes between courses but maybe they're too big or maybe I'm just lingering with them too long, but as soon as I'm done, the next one arrives. No time to breathe or reflect.

Next up is the highlight of the meal: the terrine.

In a word: it's stellar. Bold flavors. Interesting mix of ingredients. Perfectly executed. Each element complimenting the other. A beautiful example of mixing traditional elements of Hawaii cuisine with classic French technique. It was amazing. The pork hash with the firm texture of the unagi and rich elements from the foie covered in a kabayaki sauce and all pressed into a terrine, sliced and served with some seaweed and a shallot-like veggie. Unbelievable.

I had wanted to come and experience something new and exciting and this was it. This was exactly what I had been hoping for. Perhaps on another day I will come to Alan Wong's and order this as an a la carte item. Maybe two.

Steamed Kona Kampachi - Dried Scallop Truffle Risotto Flan

Suddenly, a most interesting dish landed in front of me. Flan with fish and risotto? Good Heavens, that sounds gross. Flan as a savory? With fish? That'

But I'm game for just about anything, so I dig in. Steamed kampachi fish layered on top of a light flan floating in a light broth hiding a layer of risotto. It's pretty damn good. The fish is perfectly steamed and the light broth is complimentary. The flan is also light and mixed with the risotto it all comes together.

In two courses, we've gone from something bold and stellar to something new and exciting. This round combines traditional elements of flan and risotto in ways that I would never have thought possible. Nice work.

Kona Abalone & Lobster - Negi Oil, Hamakua Eryngi Mushrooms

We've rounded a corner. We're more than halfway through the menu and I feel like we're racing. According to my calculations, the timing is roughly the same as places like Alinea or per se, but it feels like were gunning it pedal to the metal.

As I taste the next course, I'm slightly underwhelmed. The ingredients are good and the flavors are complimentary. Tasty even. I just can't help but think I've had this before. And it turns out that I have had it before. The abalone and lobster are the same elements in the first course. The abalone again is springy, textured and tasty. So too is the lobster. But in many ways, it's almost a rehash of the first course and, therefore, a disappointment. Surely there are other ingredients and combinations the kitchen can come up with.

Maui Cattle Company Striploin - Red Wine Braised Oxtail, Roasted Maui Onions, Goat Cheese Potato Croquette

The menu lists a Japanese Wagyu Beef Steak as a $30 supplement instead of this course. Japanese Wagyu is indeed tempting but when taking my order, Ryan never asked me if I was interested in the supplement. Not a big deal since I'm really interested in tasting what the local producers have to offer but it would have been nice to have been asked.

Judging by the size, this course must be The Main Event of the evening. For an a la carte item, it's a good sized portion. For the sixth course of a seven course tasting menu, it's downright huge. The loin of beef is wrapped in braised oxtail and served with two types of cauliflower and a potato croquette.

The meat is wonderfully cooked to a moist pink that highlights the natural, grass-fed beef. It's wrapped in a fatty rich braised oxtail wrapper with nori that's just delicious. It's beautiful in it's own right. That's where the problems begin.

There's a sauce that's pretty much unnecessary, and the bold flavor of the goat cheese croquette and the perfectly executed cauliflower and suddenly, the flavors on the plate are fighting each other. The bold fattiness of the oxtail fights with the beef loin. The goats cheese threatens the cauliflower. So much is happening on this plate that I don't know why. Instead of allowing the natural flavors to shine through, they're now fighting each other. It's so good and rich that it falls on its' face.

There's so much going on here that I think it would have been more interesting to break the dish down further and serve the elements on their own. The Croquette and cauliflower could easily be on their own - as should the beef and oxtail. Don't get me wrong, the elements were good, they were just getting lost in transmission.

The Rising Sun - Will & Grace Coffee

With the savory items out of the way, it's time to move into dessert. One of the reasons I ended up at Alan Wong's instead of Mavro this time out was because of Lorie Obra. During our visit to her farm on Monday, she mentioned that her coffee was one of the coffees picked by Alan to be part of his coffee menu. I then took a look at their website and saw that they did indeed offer a coffee menu. That was a big reason why I chose Alan Wong's - to see just how seriously they took their coffee program.

Long time readers of this blog probably know that the state of restaurant coffee throughout the world generally sucks. It's atrocious. Only a small few chefs and restaurants know and/or care about their coffee program at this time, so it's exciting to see someone recognize the value in offering coffee of quality.

Let me say it again: the seriousness of their coffee menu was a major element in my choosing Alan Wong's over the others.

Alan Wong's Coffee Menu features coffees from eleven farms spanning four islands: Moloka'i, Kaua'i, O'ahu and the Big Island. Coffees from both Kona and Ka'u are featured, including Lorie's Rusty's Hawaiian 100% Ka'u from their estate in Pahala. The selections are quite interesting, from Eddie Sakamoto's "Private Reserve" coffees dating back to an aged 1999 lot, to Lafayette in South Kona and an old favorite: the Malulani Estate from Moloka'i. It's a nice selection of locally produced coffees from one of the only coffee growing regions in the United States.

Since I had already tasted Rusty's from Lorie herself while lounging on her lanai eating bibingka, I decided to try another Ka'u coffee, this time from Will & Grace. Grown at a place called The Rising Sun, not too far from Lorie's farm, this coffee placed 6th at the SCAA's 2007 International Coffee Competition. It would be made in French Press.

Luckily for me, French Pressed is one of my favorite ways of making coffee. It's how we do it at The Spro and usually how I do it at home. Done right, it provides a wonderfully rich cup and, unfortunately, this is where Alan Wong's program falls apart.

They've got a great selection of coffees but they're technique is off. The coffee came out to me in the press and already filled with hot water. As soon as it landed, the runner pressed it down. There's no way that in the time that they brought it out and set it down that the necessary four minutes had passed to brew a proper pot. Then, judging by the flavor of the coffee, they're using too fine a grind and too much coffee for the serving. It came out more bitter than expected. Sugar and cream were necessary I'm afraid.

Dessert Sampler

Coconut Tapioca with Mango Sorbet and fresh fruit, Strawberry Yuzu Shortcake, Haupia Sorbet and Waialua Chocolate Bar rounded out the evening in the dessert sampler. Good stuff though the Haupia sorbet seemed a bit stiff and not as flavor friendly - especially compared to the haupia ice cream from Dave's. The chocolate bars were rich and crunchy but the yuzu did not feature prominently in the shortcake. Of course, I could just be suffering from palate fatigue by this point.

The end of my meal was fast approaching. It had been a good meal. Tasty. New. Different. Most courses were just okay. But the terrine blew me away. That one course was worth it. The final taste of the night was the house made roasted macadamia nuts dipped in toffee and rolled in dark chocolate. Oooh, it was good. Sinful even.

The manager asked how my meal was and it was delicious. I had a nice time. The staff was friendly and accommodating. The runners ran off to find the answers to my questions when they didn't know the answer. And just when I started wondering if they had forgotten about me, they reappeared with the answer in hand.

It was a good time and I was finished and out of there in less than two hours. Still enough time to visit with Erika.

Chocolate Toffee Macadamia Nuts

Alan Wong's Restaurant
1857 South King Street, 3rd Floor
Honolulu, HI 96826

Nico's at Pier 38

Lovely Lobbyist Jeannine

It was one of the recommendations made by Nadine Kam, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's food critic, and brought up by Jeanine this morning on the phone. "Let's do lunch at Nico's." Cool. The only problem is that I didn't know where Pier 38 was.

Nico's at Pier 38. Sounds fancy, right? Sounds like a nice, table service kind of restaurant maybe along the waterfront. Well, it's along the waterfront but it ain't fancy and they ain't got table service. Nico's is strictly a plate lunch joint.

But it's a very good plate lunch joint.

Fried Ahi Belly with lomi tomato salsa

It's on the water and not too easy to find for the uninitiated. It's located on Pier 38 which is in a very industrial part of Honolulu - a part that I had never been to before, and next door to the Honolulu Fish Auction. Like a number of cities around the world, Honolulu is home to a real, bona fide fish auction. Every morning, fishermen come in with the previous nights' catch and a bidding frenzy ensures to buy the best of the best and since it's next door, Nico's ends up with some great quality fish.

We get there at noon on a weekday. The weather is sunny and beautiful. Since the pier was rehabilitated not too many years ago, it looks great. There's potted bushes lining the covered outdoor dining area fronting the warehouse space next to a fishing supply shop. Plastic tables fill the area and the place is jamming. Most of the tables are full, save one and we grab it. The crowd is decidedly mixed - not just fishermen and dock workers, but there's plenty of people in business attire and others hungrily waiting in line or devouring their plates. One thing is for sure: these people look happy.

Fish and Chips - beer battered and served with fries, malt vinegar & ginger garlic cilantro dip.

Nico's has the usual popular choices, like: Chicken Katsu, Hamburger Steak, Beef Stew and Loco Moco to satisfy the local palates, but I'm here to sample what they consider exciting and that's the fresh catch menu. As I get to the register, I ask the girl "if you had to choose between the ahi belly and the special, which would you choose?"

It's a tough and unfair question because today's special, an aku grilled and served with a tomato-based sauce, sounds delicious - but so too does the ahi belly. After a brief and agonizing moment, she suggests the ahi belly. Thank God, and slap on an order of fries and a Dr. Pepper with that too, please.

Grilled Aku Special

Ahi Belly. What a good thing. Fatty and delectable meat from the underside of the yellowfin tuna. It's rich and, well, what more could you want? Lightly coated and then deep fried, it's served with a light and acidly refreshing lomi tomato salsa that combines traditional aspects of Hawaiian cooking with something new. The fish is crispy and cooked perfectly. It's sweet and moist inside. The flavors are explosive. It's beautiful.

Served with steamed white rice and macaroni salad, it only needs a little shoyu for the rice and a little Tabasco for the salad. I can't get enough. It's absolutely delicious. A hit. A home run. I want to order another round but the generous portion means that I'm done. I can barely finish the plate.

Furikake Crusted Ahi with Ginger Garlic Cilantro Sauce

But it's so good and unlike many plate lunch joints, the portions are ample without being gratuitous. One of the problems in Hawaii is the growing rate of obesity and part of that stems from the extremely large portions being served at plate lunch joints across the islands. That unless your styro box weighs five pounds, you're not getting enough. Nico's servings are generous but not over the top.

And that's a good thing because you're left wanting more, like tomorrow.

Nico's at Pier 38
1133 North Nimitz Highway
Honoulu, HI 96817

Morning Mashup

The rest of the crew are departing later today so we've got to get rid of some of the food that's been building up. There's still a loaf of sweetbread from Punalu'u Bakery, some leftover eggs and milk and a package of cut fruit sitting in the fridge. I spy them all and decide that a quick, eat while you pack breakfast is in order.

With a few whips of the fork and a few minutes later: Sweetbread French Toast and Fresh Island Fruit.