Dining: Two at the Top: Then and Now
Revisiting the classics.
(page 3 of 4)
My guests were all cocktalians. One innovation that Wong seems to have picked up since 1995 is housemade cocktails, to supplement his signature pineapple martini. His lychee colada tastes like lychees you stole from the best tree in the neighborhood, and the mai tai here (leave it to California folks to order a mai tai) sets a remarkable standard. Maui rum, organic limes, pineapple and, instead of orgeat imported from Europe, a syrup housemade from ginger and roasted macadamia nuts. The smell alone transports you to a mythical spice island.
Dinner for four ran $550 when all was tallied and tip added, a remarkable bargain for a multicourse evening. I asked my California guests to sum up dinner. “We like local ingredients, but we’ve never had food like this before,” they said. “It’s so … Hawaii.”
Chef Mavro Restaurant
1969 S. King St., Honolulu // 944-4714 // Dinner nightly // Free parking, major credit cards // chefmavro.com
I haven’t reviewed George Mavrothalassitis’ highly personal restaurant since 1999, soon after it opened.
Before opening on King Street, Mavro had spent four or five years at the Four Seasons Maui.
He was not the iconic chef he’s since become, his French accent and wild Beethoven hair making him an instantly recognizable Honolulu figure. I had to explain what a perfectionist he was, how, even though he could have made a great living as a hotel chef, he’d opened the small King Street eatery because it afforded him complete creative control.
Mavro knew how food should be cooked—slowly, precisely, almost fanatically—and how it should be eaten, which is why his restaurant offered set menus, three, four and six courses. (You can also order the grand degustation, which is everything on the menu. I did that once and don’t advise it. By your third dessert, you’re ready to die.)
Back in 1999, I also had to explain to people about Mavro’s unusual wine service. You can order dinner with or without wine, but the wines are prechosen by a panel of experts to match each course. There was no wine list in addition.
This time, I took my California guests and we all ordered the six-course menu. Mavro is not impossible. If you want to substitute, say, the fish or the meat course from another of the set dinners, that’s always possible, so we did not get exactly the same meal.
Six courses isn’t exactly accurate, because there’s an extra course between dinner and dessert, not to mention the glass of Champagne and amuse bouche to start. This evening, Mavro chose to amuse our palates with a small cup of fresh Kahuku corn soup, topped with lime crème fraîche and pickled Maui onions, which packed an amazing flavor wallop for such a small package.
Then we got down to business. In 1999, my appetizer was ahi tartare topped with caviar, well-executed, delicious, but nothing astounding. This time, the first appetizer out of the kitchen made me blink in surprise.
Imagine slices of tender Big Island baby abalone, marinaded in vinegar, topped with vegetables sliced so thin they are almost translucent, and marinated with coriander, the warm, aromatic spice that’s the seed of the cilantro plant, though it tastes entirely different from the leaves.
Sound complicated? I’m not done yet. So far you have sharp and spicy flavors, chewy and crisp textures. How about adding something warm, rich and salty? From the abalone, you follow a swirl of sundried-tomato sauce to a warm croquette made with zucchini and the Spanish cheese, Manchego. What’s Spanish cheese without Spanish ham? There’s a dramatic pink slice of Serrano ham on a wooden pick garnishing the croquette.
I tried to think of something wrong with this dish. I finally found it: You couldn’t eat the wooden pick holding the ham. Usually, there’s nothing on a Mavro plate that isn’t edible, in fact, usually nothing that, however odd it might sound, isn’t delicious.
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