Firmly Rooted

For more than three decades, Alan Wong's orig­i­nal King Street rest au­rant has been spot- on in it s in­ter­pret ation of Hawai‘ i Re­gional Cui­sine.


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 fl avor­ful 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. Th ey'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 fl avors 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 fl avors 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. Th ese days, the chef, who in 2009 cooked with his staff for 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. Th e fi rst dish he shares with me, Taro Poi Gaz­pa­cho, is refl ec­tive of this. Th e ap­pe­tizer looks and tastes like a spring gar­den, as Wong uses the vi­va­cious Span­ish cold soup as his jump­ing off point to tr y 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 fl ow­ing with fl avor 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.”

Th ese 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 fl avors. Th e 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 tr y.

Wong goes on to share that his palate has changed over the decades to crave more acidic and bit­ter fl avors, not to men­tion a nice kick from chilies. All these el­e­ments come to­gether in our next tast­ing se­lec­tion: Tomato Beet, Pineap­ple Ap­ple, Emma's Chèvre, 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 purée 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. Th e cock­tail is as so­phis­ti­cated as a mar­tini, in­deed, but its ra­di­ant fl avor sings more to the tune of a mar­garita, es­pe­cially with a swig of Mae­stro Do­bel Dia­manté Te­quila, which is fi ltered for di­a­mond- like clar­ity. In line with Wong's theme of well­ness, Shishido also rec­om­mends Daily Elixir, a health­ful drink fi rst de­vel­oped years ago for the restau­rant's on­go­ing lun­cheons host­ing the se­nior cit­i­zens of Mo‘ ili‘ ili Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. Th e 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.

Th e 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 fi sh 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 fi llet, 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 fi sh, 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. Th is el­e­va­tion of fl avors

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 tr y, as its fatty rich­ness and smooth tex­ture makes it sur­pris­ingly sump­tu­ous.

Th is en­trée 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 fi rst­hand where the high- qual­ity lamb comes from. Th e 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. Th e 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 fi nal sip to an en­rich­ing meal, this cool treat shat­ters the no­tion that dessert has to be fi lled with un­healthy in­gre­di­ents to be ut­terly in­dul­gent and sat­is­fy­ing.

Pa­trons may take plea­sure in these in­tri­cate and health­ful fl avors 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.


FROM LEFT: Wine di­rec­tor Mark Shishido's Pineap­ple Chamoy Mar­tini; Kona Kam­pachi with Moromiso Wheat Berry Salad. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Both meat and seafood t ake cen­ter stage on Alan Wong's din­ner menu; Chef Alan Wong, who's cred­ited as one of the f ound­ing chefs of Hawai‘i Re­gional Cui­sine.

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