Dining: Two at the Top: Then and Now
Revisiting the classics.
(page 4 of 4)
This was only one of six courses and they were all this carefully composed, the opakapaka wrapped in feuilles de brick, a sheet of dough much like phyllo, so that it was perfectly cooked, warm and moist, served with a truffle-infused cauliflower puree that would make you think again before you say you don’t like cauliflower.
The alternate fish dish was a confit of sablefish, slow-cooked. “What’s this on top?” asked my guest. Crisp fried sablefish skin. He wouldn’t eat it, but I knew better. I consumed it on the spot. Crispy fish skin is the potato chip of the sea.
Both fish courses were perfect, though I have to admit that I miss what I ate in ’99, the onaga fillet, fresh herbs and ogo, baked inside a little fish-shaped salt pastry. This used to be a Mavro signature dish, but after making 20,000 little pastry fishes, the chef got tired of them.
But he’s not tired of thinking up spectacular dishes. The star this night was a lobster “paella.” Obviously, Mavro was not going to prepare a big pot of saffron rice dotted with seafood, but I was unprepared for what I did get, all the flavors of paella in a refined French package.
The Keahole lobster tail was cut into bite-size medallions and then reinserted into the shell. It came on a bed of red bell peppers and green olives, and was garnished with deep-fried cilantro leaves—all of this in a broth that tasted of two ingredients I would have never thought would marry so happily, lobster and chorizo, the spicy Spanish sausage. The broth was so good I asked for a roll with which to soak up the extra.
Wait, wait. It’s paella. Where’s the rice? Just before serving, the waiter added a heaping spoonful of puffed saffron rice, crunchy rather than rice-y.
You had to be astounded by Mavro’s deft control of flavors, his willingness to push past traditional boundaries—and by how good this all tasted.
I am skipping stuff, little things like foie gras and a glass of Sauternes that was even more fruity, delicate and floral than the lemongrass rambutan served on the side. Or Wagyu beef in fresh Waimanalo green-pepper sauce with an outstanding 2003 Margaux.
Or, for that matter, since one of my guests was a lamb eater, some perfect, medium-rare lamb loin, sliced and served with an eggplant fritter and curried brussels sprout leaves. Yes, someone in the kitchen peeled the tender leaves off all the little brussels sprouts.
I am hurrying past those, because, in 1999, what astounded me most was the cheese course. You can count on a real French restaurant to have a cheese cart, but Mavro actually prepares his cheese course. In ’99, it was a French cheese baked in phyllo, which seemed dramatic enough at the time.
Since then, however, Mavro has dipped into local ingredients and expanded his flavor palette—this time we got a rectangle of Big Island goat-cheese mousse, extraordinarily mild, touched with herbs. This sat aside greens from Hirabara Farm in Waimea and was topped by baby beets, candied kumquats and sticks of olive-oil cake.
It was like a song: a little sweet, a little smooth, sharp with kumquats, a bit salty, crunchy, earthy, the whole thing rocking and rolling in your mouth.
Desserts. My guests, being from California, had to sample Mavro’s malassadas, which are actually baked from brioche dough, filled with lilikoi, atop guava sauce, with pineapple-coconut ice cream, a riot of tropical flavors. “Do Leonard’s malassadas taste like this?” they asked. Not quite.
I had the dessert that came with the dinner—chocolate and pumpkin-seed crisp, pumpkin ice cream, a chocolate marshmallow (which was good, but, George, a marshmallow?), and soup, I guess you’d call it soup, a spicy chocolate soup in a chocolate box. This was so magical, we ordered another dessert so my guests could try it.
If you are thinking this sounds like a pricey meal, you are right, $725 with tip, for three, of course. Remember there was wine with each course, including a 10-year-old Australian Port with the chocolate and a Madeira with the malassadas.
I have eaten similarly ambitious meals in New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Mavro is as good as any of them, better than many, and, compared price for price on a chef’s menu, he’s a great value.
My California guests’ verdict: “Less rich, more familiar than Alan Wong’s. But there were always little touches of Hawaii that pulled you back, abalone, rambutan and those passionfruit doughnuts.”
In my ’99 review, I quoted Alan Wong about Mavro’s arrival a few blocks down South King Street, as well as Philippe Padovani, who opened his late, lamented Padovani’s Bistro about the same time. “I think it’s great Philippe and George are both opening,” said Wong. “They’ll push the rest of us to higher levels.”
Wong has kept his own course, though since 1995 he’s learned something of Mavro’s restrained touch. What I didn’t expect was that Mavro would, over the years, push himself to ever higher levels, and become better with each seasonal menu.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.