Everything around us sounds like money—the airy laughter of middle-aged Japanese women like the faint jangle of coins at the bottom of a purse; the thick guffawing of businessmen unfettered by the top buttons of their designer aloha shirts; the dull clink of knives on plates after a thickness of steak. I’m sipping a $14 Mai Tai that tastes like my most optimistic dreams of retirement—like limes, macadamia nut and multiple vacation homes. Welcome to Alan Wong’s Honolulu, one of that city’s premier restaurants since 1995, where the coffee menu is 15 farms deep and emblematic of the charms and intransigent frustrations of Hawaii—it is abundant, expensive, and out of synch.
Alan Wong, a celebrity-status chef in the islands and namesake of the restaurant, is a co-founder of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, which emphasizes island agriculture and “the taste of place”—including the many ethnic contributions to Hawaiian cuisine, from the indigenous to Japanese, Korean, and mainland American. He won a James Beard Award in 1996 for Best Chef: Pacific Northwest, and has appeared on Top Chef; this very restaurant frequently plays host to our foodie President.