Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Honolulu Review

Following my sister’s Hawaiian-style wedding reception, Annie and I had an intimate dinner for 2 at the venerable Alan Wong’s Restaurant to celebrate her 40th birthday.

Alan Wong's Restaurant  Honolulu

Alan Wong’s is one of the most recognised, award-winning fine dining establishments in Honolulu. It was noted as one of the Top 10 best restaurants in the nation by Gourmet Magazine in 2006. Presidents and chiefs of state dine there. Chef Alan Wong himself, credited as one of the founding fathers of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, garnered the James Beard Foundation award for Best American Chef – Northwest in 1996. It has a well-deserved reputation.

Annie has long wanted to go to Alan Wong’s but we never got the chance to during our previous trips back home to Hawaii. So when we started planning for this latest trip for my sister’s wedding, she made her wish very clear: “You better take me to Alan Wong’s!

About a month before we left, I called them and made the reservation.


A Warm Welcome

Alan Wong’s is not your typical fine-dining establishment. It is not located at the street level of a neighborhood known for fancy eateries. Instead, it is located in Mo’ili’ili, a working-class neighborhood east of downtown Honolulu, on the third floor of a non-descript office building.

When we stepped out of the elevator, however, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and shown to our table in the windowed room looking out over Mo’ili’ili. These tables were for the smaller duo and quartet parties, while the main dining room housed the tables for larger parties. The exterior room felt comfortably intimate whereas the interior room was busily boisterous.

Exterior and Interior Dining Rooms at Alan Wong’s

Alan Wong's Restaurant

We were informed by the staff that some of our very dear friends from San Jose, hearing of the occasion, had banded together and bought us a gift certificate to Alan Wong’s, sufficient to cover our dinner that evening. That act of kindness totally blew us away! A dinner at a restaurant like this doesn’t come cheap, as evidenced by the menu (personally signed by all the staff):

Signed Alan Wong’s Menu

Alan Wong's menu

We decided to share the 5-course tasting menu and add a couple of extra appetizers to round out the meal.

Local Food, Hawaii-Style

Alan Wong’s shares the same “local and sustainable, farm-to-table” sentiments as other leading Mainland restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Manresa. One thing it cannot match, though, is “seasonal”, because Hawaii, being a tropical place, doesn’t have seasonal produce (unless you can call “got mango or no got mango” seasons). Still, there is a wide variety of ingredients available to work with, and the kitchen staff take pains to put out a top-quality dish that reflects the various cultures that make up Hawaii.

First to arrive was a grilled cheese sandwich made with kalua pig and mozzarella, sitting atop a parmesan crisp which was balanced over a chilled tomato soup. Alongside it was a plate of ahi poke. Each of the components individually were tasty and well executed. However we didn’t see how they worked together.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Chilled Tomato Soup and Ahi Poke

Alan Wong's Appetizer Trio kalua pork slider tomato gazpacho ahi poke

We had ordered a couple of opihi shooters which are narrow glass flutes containing opihi (limpets) with tomato water, fresh herbs, a grape tomato and an olive as well. Everything was on the salty side, save for the micro-shiso at the top. It was a bit difficult to eat because everything is jammed in and doesn’t slide out of the flute easily. We managed to maneuver the small opihi that was wedged into the bottom of the glass using the straw, but it wasn’t easy.

Alan Wong’s Opihi Shooter

Alan Wong's Opihi Shooter

What is this?

Next to arrive was the lobster bisque. This was a strange one. It was thick and hearty, almost like a stew. And it was missing something: lobster flavor. It wasn’t enjoyable.

When our salad arrived (“Hamakua Springs Tomato, Beet and Avocado Salad with Li Hing Mui Vinaigrette”), we dug in, expecting something like the salad we had at Chez Panisse. It wasn’t. I know, we shouldn’t compare one restaurant’s beet salad to another but still, one can’t help but reminisce about a good dish such as that one. One legitimate complaint we have about his salad is that the li hing vinaigrette is too strong – it overpowers the fresh flavors of all the component veggies.

Alan Wong’s Lobster Bisque and Hamakua Springs Salad

Alan Wong's lobster bisque tomato and beet salad

Getting Better

The Seafood “Lasagne” was very nice – pieces lobster, scallop and shrimp wrapped in a single lasagne noodle which was then filled with a cioppino sauce, topped with cheese and baked. We cleaned this dish up and pined for more.

Also good was “Da Bag” – an appetizer of clams and kalua pig, steamed inside a large foil pouch. It comes to you still wrapped, and the waiters then pierce the foil and unwrap the steaming hot dish. The clams had picked up some of the smokiness of the kalua pig, making them irresistible.

Alan Wong’s Seafood Lasagne and “Da Bag” of Clams and Kalua Pig

Alan Wong's seafood lasagna and da bag kalua pork steamed clams

Finally, the main entrees arrived. The Ginger Crusted Onaga is one of Alan Wong’s signature dishes. It hearkens back to his Chinese roots, taking the flavors of steamed ginger chicken and marrying it into a panko crust. The fish is served atop some sweet Kahuku corn amidst a pool of miso-sesame vinaigrette. This was THE entree of the night, I would say.

Alan Wong’s version of “surf and turf” – a large shrimp sitting atop a twice cooked (braised and grilled) shortrib – was not so well done. The shrimp was cooked well, but the beef we thought had been overcooked. The meat was fall-apart tender, but tough and dry, and the kochujang sauce did not help. Too bad.

Alan Wong’s Ginger Crusted Onaga and “Surf and Turf”

Alan Wong's Ginger Crusted Onaga and Braised Short Rib

Dessert Saves the Day

Annie ordered the Strawberries Romanoff for dessert, and that turned out to be the best dish of the night, and the dinner’s saving grace. Sweet Kula strawberries swimming in a strawberry-hibiscus soup, surrounding a delicious goat cheese panna cotta and topped with a wafer of white chocolate and goat cheese sorbet. Yum!

Alan Wong’s Strawberries Romanoff

Alan Wong's Strawberry Romanoff

Of course, the staff had also prepared a special birthday-decorated dessert for Annie. It was coconut sorbet in a chocolate half-shell, designed to look exactly like a coconut, overflowing with fresh fruits. Also very nice. What we especially liked was that the staff obliged us when I requested they not sing “Happy Birthday” for everyone to hear (Annie was shy).

Alan Wong’s Coconut Dessert

Alan Wong's Birthday dessert

Adding it all up

Altogether, the bill came to over $140 including two glasses of wine and sales tax. This wasn’t as expensive as Manresa, Chez Panisse, or even Sushi-Man but we still feel like the food could have been a little better for the price. The service and staff were excellent, though.

The food was plated beautifully, but the flavors themselves didn’t sing. The dishes doesn’t make us want to go back. I think that the fact that Alan Wong’s can get the same ingredients year-round kinda leads to a complacency. Maybe if you’re not challenged to work with a new ingredient every month, you don’t feel the need to take a risk with the food.

But what do I know? Maybe I’m just a picky eater. Hundreds of other people would disagree with my assessment.

Have you been underwhelmed at a fine dining restaurant? Leave us a comment and share your story!

I’m only giving it 4 stars out of 5. Like Chez Panisse, I would go there once just to experience it for myself. But I wouldn’t go back. There’s just too many other chefs out there (like Chef Siu from Pah Ke’s in Kaneohe), applying their creative visions to local food, that also need to be tried.

Aloha, Nate

Alan Wong’s Restaurant
1857 South King Street
Honolulu, HI 96826


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Other reviews of Alan Wong’s by: Food Gal Carolyn Jung, Don George on Gadling, Cat at the Daily Dish, Arnold on Inuyaki, and Gigi-Hawaii,

14 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Ben says:

    I agree that Alan Wong’s dishes are always plated so beautifully! It definitely lives up to the fine-dining name. But I’m thinking maybe the flavors don’t work because maybe the kitchen staff experiments TOO much. So in a way, they’re not complacent but maybe a bit edgy, and with that sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. I recently ate at a well-known restaurant that used some molecular gastronomy styles and I could see how some worked and some didn’t. Not for not trying, but for taking a risk, and with that, potential failure. I give Alan Wang credit for trying different combinations. Maybe they should try their dishes on themselves more before taking them out to the full menu. BTW, what a sweet touch by your friends and by the restaurant staff. Classy!

    • Nate says:

      Ben

      Of all the dishes we had, the only one I’d consider “edgy” would be the Hamakua Spring salad with li hing mui sauce. All the other dishes aren’t that risky. The missteps, I think, were in execution. Was it because Alan or the head chefs were not in that night to check for quality? I don’t know.

  2. Claudia says:

    I certainly enjoyed every bit of what I ate there several years ago. And, if I can get my husband to take me back will definitely do it again, next time we go over from the big island. Maybe you hit an off night.

  3. What an exceptional-looking meal and a nice birthday surprise for Annie. I’ll have to let my brother-in-law and his wife know about this place. They are going to Hawaii pretty soon.

    Cheers,

    Alaiyo

  4. Ken says:

    Nate,

    I live on Oahu and take exception to your description of Hawaii locally grown produce. You said; “One thing it cannot match, though, is “seasonal”, because Hawaii, being a tropical place, doesn’t have seasonal produce (unless you can call “got mango or no got mango” seasons).”

    I would like to point you to “The Hawaii Farmers Market Cookbook 1st edition by Hawaii Farm Bureau; ISBN: 0-9779143-2-1, published 2006 by Watermark Publishing.

    On pages 176 and 177 are printed Hawaii’s Fruits Seasonality Chart and Hawaii’s Vegetables Seasonality Chart. Listing 18-fruits moderate availability, peak availability and non-availability plus listing 30-vegetables moderate availability, peak availability and non-availability.

    Hawaii in fact does have seasonal produce which the Hawaii Regional Cuisine relies heavily on to produce outstanding farm to table meals like nowhere else in the world.

    Hawaii is the only USA state that commercially grows macadamia, vanilla, world renowned coffee and world renowned single estate cacao (chocolate).

    • Nate says:

      Ken,

      thank you for taking the time to research and comment!

      Actually, the “got mango or no got mango” is a joke, and it was told by Alan Wong in his interview with Don George on Gadling.com:

      http://www.gadling.com/2011/11/30/taste-hawaii-savoring-alan-wong-s-fresh-farm-to-table-feast/

      My statement about seasonal produce was to highlight that Hawaii Regional Cuisine, while relying on what is local and available, still has a limited palette from which to paint. You point it out yourself: there are 18 fruits and 30 vegetables of varying availability in Hawaii. That limited amount of ingredients to work with can lead to a …staleness, for lack of a better term.

  5. Oh my, you’re in Hawaii! This is my home!

    First, I can’t believe you guys got all those dishes for $140 (although they were manini-sized)! Second, I’ve actually only been to Alan Wong’s once. The food, I agree, could be better for the price and rating it gets; I think they use presentation to compensate.

    • Nate says:

      Christine,

      thanks for your comment, and welcome!

      We ordered only one, 5-course tasting menu and added some other appetizers. We’re not big eaters, so we shared and it was fine.

  6. FiSh says:

    alan wong’s food creation is always awesome!

  7. leonie says:

    This proves it. It doesn’t matter that I just had dinner two hours ago, this blog makes me hungry :-)

    YUM! so Nate….how will you top this for Annie’s NEXT birthday next month?!

  8. I, too, think sometimes the tried-and-true restaurants of Hawaii get stuck in a rut. Because of its location, chefs there really have to make an effort to travel to experience new cuisines and techniques. If you don’t do that, then you kind of lag behind the latest innovations and trends.

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My Photo Annie is mistress of the kitchen while Nate is the master of the grill and smoker. We cook the homestyle Asian and Hawaiian foods of our younger days while also exploring the wider worlds of Western foods.

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