Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alan Wong's

The biggest splurge of my trip to Oahu in September was at Alan Wong's, and it was well worth it. The restaurant is a shining representative of what the Hawaiian islands have to offer: fresh seafood, a delicious hodgepodge of Asian influences, and a serious ability to forego pretention. Sure, the setting at Alan Wong's is pretty suggestive of fine dining, and you might want to dress up for the sake of making the occasion feel that much more special, but if you want to roll up in your t-shirt and jeans with a pair of Rainbows, nobody will condemn you for your attire. It is Hawaii, after all. And in the end, it's all about having a good time with good people over some very good food.

The menu comes with quite a few options. You can order food a la carte, or indulge in one of a couple tasting options. My friends and I went with the $75 5-course menu sampling, which is pretty pricey, but it's a steal when you consider the prices of most of their entrees.

The meal started out with some creamy butter and a soft, fluffy roll. No, it wasn't King's Hawaiian. But the warm roll was darn delicious. And the smooth butter was even more so.

Our first course was a playful
"Soup and Sandwich" accompanied by a coral-esque Ahi Tartare.

The chilled vine-ripened Hamakua Springs tomato soup came in a tall martini glass, while the grilled mozzarella cheese, foie gras, and Kalua pig sandwich floated on top with the help of a sturdy, thin sheet of parmesan cheese. The sandwich was three bites and the soup was four. Bite, sip, bite, sip, bite, sip. With parmesan bites in between. The sandwich was heaven. The bread was perfectly buttery and crisp. The foie was almost unnoticeable, adding a good amount of fat to the soft Kalua pig. The sandwich simply melted with each bite. The soup was a perfect way to cleanse the palate between each bite, setting yourself up to re-experience the beautiful sandwich all over again. Until all that remains are bits and pieces of the parmesan sheet.

The presentation of the Ahi Tartare was perfect for an island-based restaurant. The actual reef-like wonton structure was a bit too thick and not crispy enough, but the innards did not disappoint. The ahi was, as expected, incredibly fresh, and the tangy, citric, and sweet lilikoi (passionfruit) ceviche sauce was perfectly balanced. The accompanying tobiko tarragon vinaigrette was subtle, adding an extra touch of brine and citrus.

In addition to our 5-course, we obligatorily (thanks to Yelp) ordered
"Da Bag." This one came out in an aluminum foil balloon, punctured by the hands of some table-side service. The show was a little bit unnecessary, but it was a fun way to welcome the next course.

The bag opened up to a beautiful quintet of Manila clams, accompanied by an orchestra of diced tomatoes, crisp spinach, earthy shiitake mushrooms, and some resounding Kalua pig. The clams tasted as fresh as they looked, toothsome and giving at the same time. The broth was addictively salty, brightened up with just the right amount of vegetables. The pig was soft and juicy, reminiscent of the delicious pork we enjoyed in the prior course. Overall, a good addition to the menu.

The next course,
Seafood Lasagna, was rich, creamy, and delicious. Presented in a beautifully constructed al dente pasta shell, the perfectly cooked lobster, shrimp, and scallop made for a buttery trio of flavor. Though the flavor profile was nothing shocking, this dish was the most memorable. The toothsome bits of seafood combined with the slightly crusted top and creamy interior were filling in all the right ways. The pool of lobster cioppino accentuated the lobster's presence and the parmesan hollandaise brought some characteristic cheesiness to the lasagna.

Also thanks to Yelp, we added an order of the
Seafood Duo to our dinner. The duo came with another portion of the Seafood Lasagna, which we scarfed with no complaints. This came flanked by a Kona cold butter poached lobster and a lobster beurre fondue. There's no need to explain the awesome lasagna again. Or maybe there is a need, but I'll give it a rest.

I don't care for the word very much, but the only way to describe this lobster is supple. Deliciously toothsome, coating your tongue with a rich, concentrated flavor of lobster. When I took my first bite, any minuscule doubts I had about the quality of the seafood and relevant techniques at Alan Wong's flew off the island. The asparagus spears were nicely cooked, but they merely emphasized just how delicious the lobster was.

Next up was the
Ginger Crusted Pacific Long-Tail Red Snapper. The fish, to nobody's surprise, was perfectly crusted and cooked, easily succumbing to the weight of a fork. The crust was light and sprinkled with some panko to ensure some crunch. The fish sat on a pile of organic Hamakua mushrooms and Kahuku corn, adding some earthiness and sweetness to each bite of the fish. The addictive and generous lake of miso sesame vinaigrette, however, brought the whole dish together, adding a tart sweetness to every forkful. The sauce was easily drinkable, which I might have done when I was done with the fish.

The third and final supplement to our dinner was the
Sautéed Molokai Keawa Nui Farm Shrimp and Clams Penne Pasta. I thought this wasn't going to be anything special. I expected the shrimp and clams to be perfectly cooked, and they were. I expected the pasta to be cooked al dente, and they were.

BUT THE CHILI GARLIC LEMONGRASS BLACK BEAN SAUCE. I didn't see that one coming. The sauce had just the right amount of kick from the chili and garlic, citric tartness from the lemongrass, and sweetness and heartiness from the black beans. Much like a Chinese black bean sauce with a bit more spice and brightness. Surprising, and so, so good.

Our last savory course was a
Twice Cooked Short Rib, Soy Braised and Grilled "Kalbi" Style. I wasn't sure this course was going to be that great because (1) this dish was principally beef rather than seafood, and (2) it's pretty tough to surprise me when it comes to Korean short ribs.

Unfortunately, this dish was probably my least favorite. The beef was a bit tough and chewy at parts. The gochujang sauce was also nothing special and tasted like something I could make at home. The gingered shrimp that sat on top of the beef was, as usual, perfectly cooked, but the lone crustacean couldn't save the entire dish.

Dessert was delicious though. Not mind-blowing, but delicious. The
Kula "Strawberries Romanoff" featured Big Island goat cheese panna cotta and goat cheese sorbet, surrounded by a ring of strawberries floating in a moat of Kula strawberry-hibiscus consommé.
The strawberries were delicate and sweet, and the subtle hints of hibiscus were memorable. Although the goat cheese was delicious in both forms, the strawberries and consommé didn't stand a chance at balancing out the sorbet and panna cotta. The sugar cloud on top was a fun addition, and the mint garnish added some nice brightness to the dish.

By the end of the night, the dining room looked as if nobody was ever there. Clean white tablecloths, a steady, quiet kitchen, and my very full and satisfied belly.

In terms of the 5-course tasting menu, the ambition, quality, flavor, top-notch service, and earnestness made for an excellent meal. Some may say that Alan Wong's isn't worth the hype or the money. Sure, the food isn't the most exciting. It's often predictable, actually. But nearly everything was simply delicious.

The rest of the a la carte menu flaunts much more serious creativity, like "Mini Loco Moco" (a mochi-crusted unagi meat loaf with a sunny side up quail egg and wasabi kabayaki sauce), Kona Lobster Dumplings (with a chili, garlic, lemongrass, black bean veloute--as delicious as the pasta sauce, I hope) and "New Wave" Opihi Shooters (local limpet in spicy tomato water with fennel basil ume shiso essences).

If those a la carte options taste as amazing as they sound, I'm excited and ready for my next visit to Alan Wong's.

Alan Wong's
1857 S King St
Honolulu, HI 96826
(808) 949-2526

GET: Seafood Duo; Ginger Crusted Pacific Long-Tail Red Snapper; Sautéed Molokai Keawa Nui Farm Shrimp and Clams Penne Pasta.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Diamond Head Market & Grill

I made it. I made it through my second-to-last set of law school finals. And while several of my classmates who finished law school a quarter early were appropriately parading down the halls, I was studying for the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). But I made it. I still have a ton of stuff to push through, like some clinic work and a law review comment, but I feel sufficiently unburdened to start blogging again. And because it's spring break, I think it's time to start another series of three Hawaii posts. This time, all savory.

I'm not just writing about Hawaii now because it's spring break though. I'm crazy behind on the food I'd like to share from the past half of a year. And today, I'd like to share a particularly delicious spot on Oahu that got put on my radar by my friend, Melissa.

Hawaii has a lot of great hikes, and when I was on Oahu last September, I was somehow motivated enough to do three hikes. From my personal favorite to least favorite they were: the Makiki Valley Loop Trail, Koko Head, and Diamond Head. Some people like hikes that end with a big shebang of a view at the end of the trail. They'd probably love the seemingly never-ending steep climb along the railroad tracks of Koko Head.

The journey is painful and uneventful. Torturous, even. But the scenic view at the end is unbeatable and you feel like you're on top of the world. Until you have to make the sobering, but somewhat less painful decline.

Ideally, for me, a hike will have its fair share of moments of beauty along the way and end with an astonishing view.

The Makiki Valley Loop Trail didn't have a great end point (hence, the "loop"), but I loved how much the scenery changed, from the humungous roots that formed a natural staircase to the lush fantasy of colorful native flowers and vividly green rainforest contrasted against the clear blue sky.

This hike covered the most mileage, but it was also the most enjoyable. For me, at least.

My least favorite was definitely Diamond Head. Known as the most accessible hike on the island, the barren and heatstroke-inducing trails are packed with tourists attempting the hike in Crocs and high heels.

Tour guides shout among the hoards and finding a second to enjoy the view at the top without getting in the way of someone's picture or getting asked to move along is impossible.

I guess the view is worth it for the few seconds you get to enjoy it in very disturbed peace. But what makes the hike well worth it is the excitement of getting back down that godforsaken hill in anticipation of getting back all those calories at Diamond Head Market & Grill.

On an island saturated with classic Hawaiian food, Diamond Head Market & Grill's plate lunches and breakfast options are exceptional. And after dealing with the crowds at Diamond Head, nothing tastes sweeter.

While I was on the island, I hit up this place twice. Once for breakfast, and once for lunch.

Lunch is pretty standard, but even the most mundane of options, like the Teriyaki Chicken, exceeds expectations. All too often teriyaki chicken is grilled into a dry, carbonite mass. This one was just the right amount of plump, juice, and char. Add some sriracha or some sweet and slightly tangy housemade teriyaki sauce if you want, but I could just eat this plain.

If you'd rather have some pork, they serve a pretty decent Char Siu Pork. Again, perfectly grilled with just the right amount of char and a good retention of juiciness. The Chinese red sauce marinade is appropriately sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet as it sometimes is when char siu comes in a steamed bun. Although the pork is quite good, I still preferred the teri chicken.

If you're hungry, you can still get that teri chicken goodness and that tasty char siu in they're huge, generous, chicken/pig/cow trifecta of a Mix Plate. This plate hits all the right spots with the addition of a meat patty slathered in gravy. The meat patty was actually a little bit overdone for me, but the gravy and the bits of black char saved the day. All it needed to induce a heart attack was a fried egg.

Although it serves a pretty solid plate lunch, Diamond Head Market & Grill shines brightest in the morning.

Of course, I had to get the Breakfast Plate: two eggs, a choice of bacon, ham, spam, or Portuguese sausage, and brown or white rice. I got the Portuguese sausage, which was exceptionally better than other Portuguese sausages I've had. Portuguese sausage is pretty rampant in the Hawaiian breakfast scene, but these give the rest a run for their money. The secret? Those outrageously delicious grill marks. The sausage really comes to life with that char.

You can also get the Fish and Eggs, which is basically the Breakfast Plate with a choice of ahi or salmon in lieu of the meat. My friend got the salmon, which was a little bit on the dry side, but still had that satisfying grilled taste.

And you can't leave any Hawaiian island without having some Banana Pancakes.

They're no Tasty Crust, but they're pretty freaking tasty. Warm, comforting, and laced with gooey chunks of banana, these cakes beat anything I've had on the mainland (I know, I'm not Hawaiian). The powdered sugar was unnecessary, and they barely even needed the side of maple syrup. They stood just fine on their own.

The two best things I had for breakfast were from the market's pastry section.

The Lemon Crunch Cake is pretty delicious. There's plenty of that delicious tartness, and the toffee-like brittle along the outsides of the cake add some serious sweetness and a little bitterness. Overall, it's a lemon tart or a lemon chiffon on crack. Don't eat this alone though. The sweetness can get pretty overwhelming pretty fast.

The better of the two was the heavenly Blueberry Cream Cheese Scone. Holy smokes. This might be one of the top five scones I've ever had. My number one problem with scones is that they're often way too dense, way too dry, or both. I often equate scones with flavored bricks. But every once in a while, you come across an insanely good scone. Like this one.

The number of blueberries is generous, the scone itself is surprisingly moist and fluffy, and a sweet cheesiness finds its way into each bite. Imagine your favorite blueberry cheesecake toned down and translated into a handheld pastry encased in a thin sugary piece of armor. I thought this might come off as too sweet, but it was perfection. Throw in some coffee and you're good to go.

After stuffing yourself silly with their signature charred goodness and tasty baked goods, the only way to work off the food coma is an afternoon at Kailua Beach.

Diamond Head Market & Grill
3158 Monsarrat Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
(808) 732-0077

GET: Blueberry Cream Cheese Scone; Banana Pancakes; Portuguese Sausage; Teriyaki Chicken.
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