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Brave New Worldby Shannon Wianecki | Hawai'i magazine | September 6, 2012
It goes without saying that Alan Wong is a culinary institution in Hawai‘i. It was no surprise, then, that Maui residents and visitors greedily anticipated the opening of his newest restaurant, Amasia, this May. And there could be no more regal venue for his island debut than the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa’s former Kincha restaurant. Built in the spare-no-expense heyday of Hawai‘i’s Japanese tourism boom, the Kyoto teahouse fantasy even boasts 800 tons of rock imported from Mount Fuji. A stream meanders through the dining room, creating secluded nooks. The recent $3 million renovation left the restaurant’s bones intact, while adding a robata bar and a gracious new entry through the immaculate Japanese garden. With the word Amasia seeming to suggest amazement, the restaurant’s name seems the most appropriate of monikers.
But Amasia actually refers to a future supercontinent—formed from the merging of Asia and the Americas—and Wong’s menu reflects what magic might result if Japan, Korea, Singapore and South America collided in a Hawaiian kitchen. Hence, in the parallel tradition of Spanish tapas bars and Japanese izakayas, dishes are small. “We want to recreate that festive ambiance,” says Wong, “where friends share a lot of smaller portions, drink and talk story.”
If falernum—a Caribbean cocktail syrup similar to orgeat— has you racing for a dictionary, it won’t be the only novel ingredient you encounter on Wong’s menu. The congenial local boy-turned-globetrotter has a culinary vocabulary that would give even Julia Child pause. Following Wong’s usual MO, Amasia does spotlight plenty of local favorites, but each is spun in a new direction and served with tongue-twisting sauces. (The curious should check out his upscale remix of Spam.) For those seeking familiarity, there are also some classic dishes carried over from Wong’s Honolulu restaurant, like the twice-cooked kalbi short ribs.
Nevertheless, a visit to Amasia is no time for shyness. If the dizzying selection of sushi, robata grill items and entrées intimidates you, ask your server to steer you down the most delicious path. To their great credit, the newly trained waitstaff speak with confidence. In the kitchen, Chef de Cuisine Chris Damskey—formerly of the W Boston’s Market restaurant—serves as Wong’s right-hand man. Still, it’s likely that joining Wong’s kitchen crew requires a steep learning curve.
Likewise, guests are likely to learn something new at Amasia, which dives into diversity headfirst. Dinner starts with ban chan—Korean-style pickled vegetables. Shoyu and chili pepper water take the place of salt and pepper. Sake is served in square, wooden cups traditionally used in rural Japan. A massive jamón ibérico (cured Spanish ham) sits on the robata counter waiting to be sliced into thin ribbons. Among the tastiest appetizers from the grill is actually a Greek dish: the juicy and well-spiced loukániko sausage.
By far, Wong’s daring uni (sea urchin) shooter is one of the memorable items on the menu. During his travels to Peru, the chef learned to make ceviche, the national dish, along with its delicious derivative, leche de tigre (literally, tiger’s milk). (This “milk” is simply the leftover chili-citrus liquid used to marinate fish for ceviche.) At Amasia, Wong first fills a double tall shot glass with leche de tigre, which is considered a hangover cure and aphrodisiac in Peru. Into this, he douses two slivers of uni, another passion-inspiring ingredient. While the resulting love potion is hard to gulp in one swig, it works out for the best: Its creamy, multidimensional flavors are worth savoring.
From the sushi bar, the Kona kampachi tiradito is another Peruvian export. Sliced sashimi-style, the local aquacultured fish is aswim in liliko‘i sauce and sprinkled with red chiles, purple sweet potato squares and bright yellow corn kernels. Fun extras like this reveal the chef’s sense of humor.
After all the culinary globe-trekking, be sure to leave ample room for dessert. While the guava-filled malasadas and Waialua chocolate pudding are tempting, the pineapple shave ice may very well be the best dessert found in the islands: an irresistible trifecta of vanilla panna cotta, haupia sorbet and coconut tapioca, drizzled with liliko‘i and heaped with frozen pineapple shavings. In fact, this dessert is a good metaphor for the Amasia experience overall: classy, playful and absolutely delicious.
Grand Wailea Resort & Spa,
3850 Wailea Alanui Drive,
Wailea, Maui, 800.888.6100,
Dinner, 5-10pm daily
What to Eat
Greek loukániko sausage, uni shooters with leche de tigre, Kona kampachi tiradito
Where to Sit
If you don’t mind sitting on the floor, the best seats in the house are in the private tatami rooms, enclosed by sheer curtains. The robata bar and cocktail lounge both offer serene views of the koi pond. For a special occasion, ask for the floating table in the center of the restaurant.