Hawaii Part 2: Chefs Who Pioneered Hawaiian-Regional, Fine-Dining Cuisine

Fabulous ginger-crusted onaga at Alan Wong's.

HONOLULU, OAHU –  Alan Wong. Sam Choy. Roy Yamaguchi. George Mavrothalassitis. And Peter Merriman.

Together, they make up a large part of the culinary cognoscente who first put Hawaiian fine-dining on the map. In their hands, the unique ingredients of the islands have been elevated to new heights with sophisticated techniques and glorious ethnic influences.

On a recent trip to Oahu, courtesy of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, I was invited to dine as a guest at two of these pioneering Honolulu restaurants. They did not disappoint, either.

In 1995, the flagship Alan Wong’s restaurant opened in an unlikely spot: the third floor of a rather non-descript office building. It boasts no view of the ocean or beach, just cars whizzing by on the street or kids skate-boarding after dark.

But when the elevator doors open to the restaurant, you step into a warm, inviting and always busy dining room full of couples and families celebrating birthdays as befits this special occasion place.

The menu offers a la carte choices, as well as two tasting menu options — a five-course menu sampling and a six-course chef’s tasting menu. The former is a roundup of some of Wong’s signature dishes, while the latter features newer dishes.

My husband and I opted for the $75 five-course, though the cooks threw in a few extra goodies.

Soup and sandwich go glam at Alan Wong's.

Wong’s food is full of whimsy and bold flavors, as evidenced by the famous “Soup and Sandwich,” which features chilled Hamakua Springs tomato soup in a martini glass that’s playfully juxtaposed with a grilled cheese kalua pig sandwich. Yes, in Hawaii, you can get great tomatoes practically all year-round. Eat your heart out, mainlanders. Bite into the crisp sammy and prepare to swoon as tender, smoky pig meets gooey mozzarella.

Ahi done up like a sea anemone.

Another inventive take was the ahi, which comes wrapped in slivers of wonton wrappers, then is deep-fried until it looks like a golden sea anemone on your plate.

But Wong also can do simple very well, too. Ginger-crusted onaga (Pacific long-tail red snapper) was as close to perfection as you can get. It reminded me of Chinese-steamed fish, with its moist flesh and palate-tickling ginger — only taken up a notch. Its creamy miso-sesame sauce was the ideal complement. Corn shoots, tender and yellow, added a unique anise-tarragon note.

Short rib cooked two ways.

More ginger accented a succulent shrimp that accompanied a tender short rib that was first soy braised, then grilled Korean-style. It was served with batons of eggplant that were as dreamy as custard.

Dessert also proved a high point. Kula “Strawberries Romanoff” makes use of locally made goat cheese in a silky panna cotta floating in a refreshing strawberry-hibiscus consomme and topped with tangy goat cheese sorbet.

Goat cheese panna cotta with local strawberries.

Not your usual shave ice.

Next, imagine a Hawaiian shave ice all frosty and mounded in a big glass — only it’s not quite what you think it is. Instead of ice, Wong freezes a locally grown pineapple, then “shaves” it with a microplane. It looks for all the world like shave ice, but the flavor is full-on pineapple with shades of pina colada. Dig deep into the glass and you’ll discover vanilla panna cotta, coconut tapioca, haupia sorbet and fresh pineapple chunks. It’s clever and quite amazing.

Dinner ends appropriately enough with a little dish of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.

Two nights later, it’s on to Chef Mavro. With a Greek surname and a French lineage, Mavrothalassitis found himself lured to Hawaii from France in 1988 because of the bountiful sunshine. (Can you blame him?) Now age 66, he’s still commanding the kitchen, never giving a thought to retirement because it would just be too boring to him.

The serene, corner restaurant — just a block from Alan Wong’s — has its own convenient parking lot, too.

The self-taught chef from Marseilles offers a three-course ($75), a four-course ($85) and a six-course ($128) option. The entire table also can order the “Grand Degustation,” which offers up every dish on the menu in tasting portion sizes for $165 per person.

Interestingly enough, there is no wine menu. Instead, wine pairings (noted on the menu beside each dish) are available for an additional charge. Or feel free to order a glass or bottle of any wine you see listed on any of the prix fixe menus.

A classic poached farm egg infused with truffles from Burgundy at Chef Mavro.

Luxurious lobster risotto.

Local produce and seafood abound in dishes that are full of classicism. For instance, Mavrothalassitis stores fresh eggs with black truffles from Burgundy until they absorb the pungent, fragrance and flavor. Then, the egg is poached until the white is set and the yolk still runny. More truffles are shaved over the top and a potato mousseline spooned around the plate for even more luxuriousness.

Keahole lobster tail, left in its deep red shell for dramatic effect, comes on a bed of creamy risotto, fortified with lobster stock for even more intensity.

Juicy lamb loin with moussaka in phyllo.

Juicy slabs of Colorado lamb loin are accompanied by a phyllo-wrapped moussaka and braised baby turnips. Kurobuta pork belly is roasted, rendering crackling crisp skin. Alongside are vanilla-scented sweet potatoes from Molokai.

More truffles show up for dessert in a vanilla mousse that a server shaves pricey white slivers over. It’s creamy and faintly sweet, with the truffles adding a musky touch.

Vanilla mousse with shaved white truffles.

A sampler of house desserts at Chef Mavro.

But dessert doesn’t end there. A sampler arrives, showcasing pear macaron, pineapple sorbet, a lilikoi cream-filled malasada, and Valrhona chocolate cremeux with jasmine chantilly cream.

With a full stomach, we retiref to the magnificent Royal Hawaiian, otherwise known as the “Pink Hotel,” where we were invited to stay, courtesy of the visitors bureau. Built in 1927, it”s the second-oldest hotel on Oahu, after the Moana Surfrider (1901).

The view from my balcony at the Royal Hawaiian.

Once the estate of royalty, the Spanish-Moorish hotel with its unmistakable pink hue sits on Waikiki Beach. Hard to fathom, but it was originally built so that the rooms only had views of the lush garden courtyard. Back in the day, the only way you could get to Hawaii was by a long, five-day boat ride. And the last thing weary travelers wanted to see was more water when they retired to their rooms.

You can see why it's nicknamed the "Pink Hotel.''

The dramatic walkway beside the courtyard garden.

These days, modern-day visitors are all about the beach. The hotel has multiple swimming pools. The ocean is a mere step away, too.

In 1969,  the tower wing was added with its dramatic views of the beach. Japanese tourists, who make up the bulk of foreign visitors to Oahu, are apparently partial to those stellar vistas, as well as the fancy, high-tech Japanese toilet in the rooms.

A tower room.

No better way to get welcomed than with fresh banana bread.

Me? I especially liked the sweet touch of the little loaf of fresh-baked banana bread left in each room.

Hawaii Part 1: The Unique Honolulu Fish Auction

Hawaii Part 3: A Tale of Two Very Different Farmers

Hawaii Part 4: Four Magnificent Meals on Maui

Hawaii Part 5: Kona — Where Coffee is King

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