Like all the other restaurants boasting Pacific Rim food, Alan Wong's dishes are bright and elaborate with drizzles and dots of contrasting sauces, fluffs and nests of greenery and architectural feats using fish, meats and vegetables as building blocks. He flavors with the herbed oils and tomato water and spiced vinaigrettes that every other cutting-edge chef is using. Yet unlike many, his complexity is carefully woven rather than haphazardly piled flavor upon flavor. Here is as sure a hand and as exacting an imagination as one rarely sees.
Wong's ginger coating on onaga haunts rather than attacks the fish, and his miso sesame vinaigrette brings the fish to life. Wong's airy rice-based cream makes you forget all those island cream sauces, and his fruit accents taste summery rather than sweet. His Dungeness crab is stir-fried in a dark explosive sauce that makes you want to lick the shells clean. Wong takes Chinese duck and guacamole with Asian spices, piles them on a crisp chip made of tapioca flour and scallions, dabs on hoisin sauce and produces a kind of unearthly nacho.
You can't read such a menu and make sense of it ("Furikake salmon with ume shiso rice cream on linguine"), but you can trust that this chef knows what he's doing and will tease your mouth to levels of awareness. To end the meal, he offers a playful crescendo: a tray of five Chinese porcelain spoons, each one filled with a different flavored creme bru^lee. More fun than any wine tasting.
Bringing our trip full circle, we ended at Honolulu's airport with a snack to stave off the steamed chicken in cornstarch sludge that we'd be served high over the Pacific. We toted a large plastic tray wrapped in a delicately patterned plastic bandanna by the hostess at Restaurant Sada.
"Sushi," guessed our rental-car clerk. Correct.
We unwrapped it on a marble bench in the open air, just in front of the security gate. We scarfed down one last big round futomaki, a salmon skin roll like none on the mainland; dewy red tuna in California rolls; and the most succulent eel, still warm from its glazing and broiling. We held up our last slabs of tuna on rice and toasted our vacation. Who needs champagne?
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On the Big Island: Aloha Cafe, Aloha Theater Building, Mamalahoa Highway (Hawaii Route 11), Kainaliu; telephone (808) 322-3383. Entrees average about $12.
Anne Sutherland's Mean Cuisine, Opelo Plaza, Hawaii Route 19, Waimea; tel. (808) 885-6325. Entrees average less than $10.
Broke the Mouth, 55 Mamo St., Hilo; tel. (808) 934-7670. Entrees are about $5.
CanoeHouse, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, 68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, Kohala Coast; tel. (808) 885-6622. Entrees are $27 to $59.
Kilauea Lodge, Old Volcano Road, one mile north on the Hilo side of Volcanoes National Park; tel. (808) 967-7366. Entrees average $18 to $20.
Nihon Restaurant and Cultural Center, 123 Lihiwai St., Hilo; tel. (808) 969-1133. Business people lunches start at $9.95.
Sam Choy's, 73-5576 Kauhola St., Kaloko Light Industrial Park, Kailua-Kona; tel. (808) 326-1545. Dinner entrees are $10 to $30.
Seaside Restaurant, 1790 Kalanianaole Ave., Hilo; tel. (808) 935-8825. Entrees with salad and dessert are $10.50 to $20.95.
Tex Drive Inn, Honokaa; tel. (808) 775-0598.
Oahu: Alan Wong's, 1857 S. King St., 5th Floor, Honolulu; tel. (808) 949-2526. Entrees are $15 to $30.
Ba-Le, 13 locations in Honolulu. Sandwiches are less than $4.
Kenkel's, Hawaii Route 72, Waimanalo. Plate lunches are $5 to $6.
Matsumoto Shave Ice, 66-087 Kam Highway, Haleiwa; tel. (808) 637-4827. Shave ice is $1.20 to $2.
Restaurant Sada, 1240 S. King St., Honolulu; tel. (808) 949-0646. A dinner combination runs $18.50.