Alan Wong's Amasia
This celebrity chef brings a tectonic shift to plates served at his new Maui venue.
Winding my way through a Japanese garden, the brilliant foliage punctuated by enormous granite rocks imported from Mt. Fuji, I cross over waters teaming with koi and pass from West into East. As I step out of the midday sun into the Zenlike interior of Amasia, I’m not only cooled, but instantly calmed.
Built to resemble a traditional Japanese fishing village, the former Kincha restaurant at the Grand Wailea Resort was treated to a three million dollar enhancement in 2012, and the lighter, brighter space is now home to the latest of Chef Alan Wong’s fine-dining establishments, which include Alan Wong’s Honolulu and the Pineapple Room at Ala Moana Center.
I had dined at Amasia twice before, but this time, the day prior to the restaurant’s formal opening, Alan Wong himself sits down to chat with me. He soon has me convinced that dining here is like riding in the passenger seat through his life. Elements of his background, travels, and culinary education can be traced throughout the wide-ranging menu.
Born in his mother’s hometown, Tokyo, Chef Wong moved to Hawai‘i at the impressionable age of five, and once here, identified solidly with his father’s Hawaiian-Chinese heritage, while never losing touch with his maternal roots. He claims it wasn’t a love of food that sparked his desire to become a chef. In fact, he was a picky eater, growing up. His interest in the culinary arts had more to do with becoming a good kitchen manager than it did with an interest in fine cuisine.
I’m not sold on Wong’s claim that he didn’t start out with an exceptional palate, because in the next breath, he vividly recalls eating a frozen tangerine in a Tokyo train station at the age of four.
“I’ll never forget the sensation of that cold, sweet fruit on a hot day. It’s that type of experience I’d like to offer my restaurant guests. Palate memory.”
Left: Wong's lomi lomi salmon roll surprises with marinated tomato and tomato-water gelee. Right: Maui Gold pineapple shave ice with Hawaiian vanilla panna cotta, liliko'i sauce and coconut-pudding sorbet.
I can relate. It’s the same experience I had after tasting Wong’s signature pineapple shave ice, a ginger-marinated frozen pineapple that is micro-planed over Hawaiian vanilla panna cotta, liliko‘i (passionfruit) sauce, and haupia (coconut pudding) sorbet. The light-as-new-fallen-snow pineapple disappeared in my mouth, cleansing my palate with a sensation that refreshed without being too sweet. It’s one of the more clever things I’ve ever eaten, and like so many items on Amasia’s menu, could only have been conjured by someone with brilliant taste buds.
Once Wong began sampling flavors and foods in culinary school, lightbulbs went on, igniting what he admits is his greatest attribute Hawaii Celebrity Chef Alan Wong, New Amasia Restaurant in Wailea extraordinary curiosity. The kitchen soon became this lifelong tinkerer’s laboratory.
Using a method he calls “slot in/slot out,” Wong began trading ingredients in traditional recipes with those more reflective of the terroir of his multicultural childhood.
His talents landed him a stint at Lutece in New York City (considered one of the best restaurants of its time), working under the tutelage of the famed chef Andre Soltner. Wong returned to Hawai‘i armed with an expanded culinary education and became one of the founding members of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine. Soon he was known for his East-meets-West, pan-Pacific fare, made from island ingredients and using classical techniques.
While on the Big Island, helming the successful Canoe House restaurant, Alan Wong formed relationships with island farmers like Richard Ha, helping to put a number of burgeoning businesses on the map decades before sustainability became a buzzword. Many of the local producers Wong turned to in the nineties still supply the chef with treasured ingredients – though he’s always on the hunt for new local suppliers, and even has a business “forager” on the payroll.
“What’s great about having smaller restaurants is that we can buy from the farmer [who is] just starting out a pound here and there – without their having to ramp up production too quickly, which would jeopardize the essence of small farming. It makes me happy to feel I’ve played a significant role in encouraging many startup enterprises,” Wong says, beaming with pride.
Fans of Wong’s cooking would likely stage a protest had he not included the wildly popular Richard Ha’s Whole Tomato Salad on Amasia’s menu. The chef expertly poaches and peels a perfectly ripened, bright red orb, surrounds it with thin cucumber slices, then perches it on an insanely delicious, remarkably sweet and savory li hing mui dressing.
Wong has repeated another dish with a cult following among his O‘ahu clientele: the soup and sandwich. It’s as far from the classic deli lunch combo as it gets – fresh yellow and red tomato purees locked in embrace inside a martini glass, topped with parmesan crisp upon which sits a mini grilled cheese bedecked with kalua pork and smeared with an all-important wisp of foie gras.
In these signature items from his established menus, Chef shows us where he’s coming from, but Amasia differs in many ways from Wong’s other dining spots. First, the interior is unique, with dual sushi bars, a robata grill, tatami rooms and a dining pavilion floating above a stream that winds through the restaurant’s interior. You’d have to fly to the Land of the Rising Sun to experience a more convincing Japanese decor, yet this is not a strictly Japanese restaurant. So what is it?
“This is essentially a resort restaurant,” Wong points out, “so we created a menu that allows people to dine here three or four times in a week and have a different experience each time.”
The majority of items on the menu are served as small plates and meant to be shared. The concept is similar to tapas in Spain, mezza in the Middle East and izakayas in Japan. “You know how people enjoy hanging out with friends at a backyard barbecue, having a bite of this, a sample of that. . . . That’s the idea here,” Wong explains.
The extensive appetizer menu is inspired by global classics, yet each dish displays the chef’s handiwork, be it a touch of whimsy, an unexpected sensory delight, or a decidedly Hawaiian interpretation of a standard. Take a peek into Chef’s passport with a taste of loukanika sausage, served at the robata grill, spiced with cardamom and Greek yogurt. Ahi stands in for veal in Wong’s novel reinvention of the Italian standard, aptly retitled “meatballs with angry sauce.” Order a plate of marinated Spanish olives and you’ll be surprised by a chorus of li hing mui harmonizing with the savory fermented fruits.
During a turn as guest chef in Peru, Wong became familiar with leche de tigre, a ceviche marinade purported to be both aphrodisiac and hangover cure. He’s made the citrusy, chili-infused melange all his own by substituting Japanese yuzu for the lime in “tiger’s milk,” into which he drops raw uni (sea urchin) and serves it in a shot glass.
In Wong’s hands even an ordinary dish such as maki roll – spiced tuna – is innovative, with crispy potatoes a replacement for the usual rice, while the lomi lomi salmon roll is graced with elegant tomato-water gelee, elevating the lu‘au staple into a sublime snack. A tom yam kung roll is the clever chef’s sushi-fied version of the famed Thai soup.
The chef’s cooking evolution also explains the title of his latest endeavor. Amasia is the name scientists gave to the supercontinent that will form 50 to 100 million years from now, if (as plate tectonics suggest) Asia and North America merge into one.
Wong has wisely assembled a pedigreed staff for his new showcase. Their combined dossiers read like a Who’s Who of the culinary world. Chef de cuisine Chris Damskey has worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten; sushi chef Jeff Ramsey trained with Jose Andres in Washington, D.C; and sous chef Dee Ann Tsurumaki formerly headed up the Felix Restaurant at the renowned Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.
Together, Wong and his team have created an innovative dining experience where guests can discover many of the best flavors of world cuisine right here at the epicenter of the approaching transcontinental merger – Maui, Hawai‘