The best restaurant in Honolulu, by most accounts, is Alan Wong’s. And Alan Wong’s is also a great choice if you’re looking for the fantastic vegetarian food in Honolulu: another website wrote that Alan Wong’s has the best vegetarian menu selection in Honolulu, and I’m inclined to agree. Alan Wong’s gets great points for taste, style, and presentation.
A few months ago, I was on vacation in Hawaii. We stayed with our friends Mitch and Theresa, who live just outside of Honolulu. Near the end of our stay, to thank them for their hospitality, my wife and I took Mitch and Theresa out to dinner at Alan Wong’s. Surprisingly, arguably the nicest restaurant in town is in one of the seedier areas. You enter what is basically an office building, go up in the elevator, and enter the restaurant. The interior looks like the image you see above. The image, though, is from an iPad–in what I thought was a pretty nifty move, Alan Wong’s puts their wine list on the iPad, something I’ve never seen before.
I called ahead to make sure that there would be vegetarian food available. The menu itself doesn’t have a great set of vegetarian options, but if you call ahead, the restaurant is more than willing to make sure you get accommodated. (It seemed like they would have been fine even if I hadn’t called ahead, but I wanted to play it safe.)
The first course was a tomato soup, with a cheese crisp and a “grilled cheese sandwich”. The salad on the side had beets, tomato, and avocado, with some sort of sweet dressing. I thought this was a great combination — the sweet salad with the tangy tomato and salty grilled cheese. I liked the presentation, and this was a great start to the meal: enough to whet your appetite but nothing overwhelming.
At this point, I want to digress slightly. I think there are two general schools of though on vegetarian food at top restaurants. First, the restaurant could create a “parallel” set of vegetarian options, whether as a separate vegetarian menu or as part of the regular menu. Second, the restaurant could create its regular menu, and then vegetarian options that come as close to the regular options as possible. (I guess the third option is to relegate vegetarians to second class status, though I don’t really consider that a serious choice.)
Alan Wong’s takes this second approach. The soup and salad, for example, is usually non-vegetarian (sashimi with the salad, foie gras in the sandwich, among other things), but it was adapted for me. The next course for non-vegetarians is ginger-crusted fish, but for me it was ginger-crusted tofu.
My wife had the regular option, which, as you can see, looked pretty similar:
I really liked the tofu, and my wife said it actually tasted pretty similar to the fish. Regardless of how it compared to the seafood, I liked it on its own terms. The mushrooms went nicely with the tofu, and the dish was unlike anything I’d had. Usually, “ginger-crusted” anything is not vegetarian. I like Alan Wong’s attempt — I should say, successful attempt — to give vegetarians a taste of what was on the regular menu. The ginger was a little overpowering, but it balanced out with the corn and mushrooms. I didn’t know what the sauce was underneath the tofu, but I liked it. Without it, the dish would have been too dry.
The meat-eaters then moved on to seafood lasagna; I had spinach lasagna with cremini and button mushrooms with melted cheese. The lasagna was really good; in fact, it was so good that I forgot to take a picture before eating! The presentation of the lasagna was interesting, and again, unlike anything I’d had before. Lasagna noodles are usually stacked on top of each other. This was just one lasagna noodle, arranged in a circle, and the filling — usually in between layers of lasagna — was filled into the middle. Most important, it wasn’t heavy. The big problem I have with lasagna is that it gets really filling really quickly. In this case, with such a small portion, there was no such problem.
The next course was eggplant. The regular menu called for “kalbi style” short ribs with shrimp; I had the eggplant “kalbi style” with pureed cauliflower and spinach. Kalbi style refers to a type of Korean marinade; my eggplant was made with the same marinade as the short ribs. The eggplant was grilled, though the marks you see were actually scored into the eggplant; they’re not grill marks. My one criticism of the dinner was that I thought the eggplant was underdone. My friends pointed out that this might be because the restaurant was trying to approximate the way some kinds of beef are cooked — grilled on high heat so that the outside is well done but the inside is not. Whatever the theory, I thought that the eggplant could have been cooked a little more.
Finally, it was time for dessert. Alan Wong’s is apparently famous for their coconut sorbet in a chocolate shell, but as you can see, it’s designed to basically look like a coconut. It’s served with some fresh fruit and sauce, and was very good.
All in all, I was impressed with Alan Wong’s. I liked that their vegetarian options were designed to “look like” the non-vegetarian options. That said, I think the eggplant was a slight miss, and I wonder if it would have been better if they had gone for a “straight” eggplant dish and not a “meat lookalike” eggplant dish. These are issues on the margin though. Alan Wong’s is widely regarded as the best restaurant in Honolulu, and I can see why. The restaurant is vegetarian-friendly, the presentation is great (and clever), and all in all, it’s a top-notch dining experience.
(As is my usual practice, I don’t give out star ratings to restaurants outside of the NYC area.)
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