Friday, June 19, 2009
Alan Wong’s and why I shouldn’t drive
I am in Hawaii, guest of the O‘ahu Visitors Bureau, which has asked me to come check out the food of the island, home to most Hawaiians. I arrived last night in the Honolulu airport at a little after 5 p.m. and found my way to the rental car companies, where a vehicle was waiting for me. Did I want a GPS? They asked. It occurred to me that, being a terrible navigator, and having never been to O‘ahu before, I probably should go ahead and get one.
I soon learned that GPSes make you stupid. Or maybe it was the late hour; 5 p.m. might not sound late, but 5 p.m. in Hawaii during daylight saving's time is 11 p.m. in New York, and I had been on an airplane pretty much straight — except for a brisk walk in Phoenix from my plane that had arrived from Newark an hour late to the aircraft headed for Hawaii that was taking off on time — since around 10 a.m. (4 a.m. Hawaii time).
So I was a little punchy anyway.
I learned that the GPS gives you some good information (“go .3 miles and turn right on Kalakaua Avenue” although it has no idea which accents to stress with Hawaiian words, making for amusing mispronunciations), but not quite enough information. It doesn’t tell you when the highway is going to suddenly split into three seperate roads, or when you might be trapped in a left-turn-only lane. Normally, of course, when driving you pay attention to those things, because you’re responsible for navigating and you need to focus. With the GPS, I found myself focusing a lot less.
“Recalculating,” the navigational system would tell me when I missed a turn, or when I was shunted by my fellow drivers onto a street I hadn't actually wanted to be on.
“I was trapped in the wrong lane!” I’d tell it, but of course it didn’t care.
After that had happened twice I decided to just relax and enjoy whatever views the GPS and my own ineptitude led me to. So I toured around the harbor a bit (“recalculating...”) until I managed to inch myself past the alarmingly oblivious tourist pedestrians of Waikiki to the Halekulani hotel.
You might have seen the picture of my view from the hotel room in my last blog entry. The picture at the beginning of this entry was, to me, one of the most salient features of the restaurant where I ate dinner, Alan Wong’s. What you see there, illuminated by an oil wick, are two lovely bottles, one containing soy sauce and the other containing vinegar. Those condiments can be seen on many more humble tables in Hawaii and much of Asia. You’d likely see them in dumpling houses in China, for example. Seeing them immediately took me back to the jiaozi, or boiled dumplings, around the corner from my dormatory at Nanjing University, although there the vinegar was dark brown and malty (variations of those condiments are seen in other countries; in Thailand you'd have fish sauce with chiles in it, vinegar with chiles in it, sugar and one of a number of other condiments depending on the restaurant).
Alan has a reputation for being playful with his food, and for incorporating local elements into his cooking, but to me it seemed that his food really exemplified the food of Hawaii’s Asian communities (I’m told about 30 percent of Hawaiian residents are ethnic Japanese), brought together in fine dining style without toning down the robust flavors of those cuisines.
That’s very different from what happens most of the time when Asian influence is brought to bear on fine dining in New York. There, even in 2009, the Asian influence is usually just a whisper, and the intensity of flavors is almost always toned down to appeal to francophiles and wimps.
At Alan Wong’s the Asian influence was front-and-center.
But the food, and the restaurant itself, still seemed to me to reflect Hawaiian realities. Wine director Mark Shishido explained that the Portuguese brought the vinegar that they use to the islands. For them, it was a source of vitamin C. The staff also was a great ethnic mix, ranging from my apparently lily-white head server Rachel to the mostly Asian (and mostly young and hip looking) men who brought out and explained my food to me, to the large and maybe a little uncomfortable-looking Pacific Islander (that’s a guess) who seemed never quite sure what I wanted to do with the lemon aïoli that was served with the bread.
Probably my favorite part of the meal was the coffee list, an extraordinary menu of about 20 coffees from throughout Hawaii — at least one from every major island.
It seemed extraordinary to me, at least. The most advanced coffee list I’d ever seen on the mainland was at Spruce in San Francisco. But Mark said coffee menus were not uncommon in Honolulu.
I guess I’ll find out over the next few days.
What I ate and drank:
locavore Mai Tai (Mai Tai Rao Ae) with orgeat-like syrup made from macadamia nuts, rum distilled in Maui, Kunia pineapple, organic Paomoho farms limes and Maui sugar
Kalua pig grilled cheese sandwich on a Parmesan crisp, served over red and yellow tomato soup in a Martini glass
seafood cake of lobster, shrimp, scallop and crab over caper mayonnase and tsukemono relish
“poki-pines”: crispy won ton ahi poke balls on avocado with wasabi sauce
2004 Carneros sparkling wine
butter poached Kona lobster (raised on the big island from North Atlantic lobster eggs raised in seawater brought from 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface) with Honda tofu, nagaimo potato cake and green onion oil
A 2007 Vouvray
ginger crusted onaga with organic Hamakua mushroom, corn and miso sesame vinaigrette
a 2006 German Riesling
Twice-cooked short ribs, soy braised and grilled kalbi style, topped with gingered shrimp and served with ko chu jang sauce, served with a side of white rice in a bowl
A 2008 Gamay Noir from Napa
Haupia (that’s a local coconut custard) sorbet with tropical fruits and lilikoi sauce, and dark chocolate “crunch” bars (no®).
a 2007 Brachetto d'Aqui
A sampling of three coffees:
Kailiawa Coffee Farm from Pahala, Ka‘u (Big Island)
2000 vintage Eddie Sakamoto from North Kona (Big Island)
Waialua Estate North Shore (O‘ahu)
To view all the blog entries about my trip to O‘ahu, click here.