Casual Dining?

Two new celebrity-chef restaurants, Cassis and Nobu Waikiki, test the limits of “casual dining.”


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In that way you get hung up sometimes on questions that don’t have answers, I’ve been wondering all month about casual dining. Almost everyone is for it, but what is it?

I began the month at Cassis, Chef Mavro’s new eatery, and ended at Nobu, which also makes a point of how casual it is, especially for a restaurant that caters to the rich and celebrated. Could two such relatively expensive—well, in Nobu’s case, more than relatively—and high-end eateries really be casual?

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CASSIS BY CHEF MAVRO
66 Queen St.
545-8100
Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m.
Valet parking, major credit cards

There’s something a little out of focus about Cassis. Its Web site bills it as a casual restaurant, a bistro. It’s neither.

It’s more casual than owner George Mavrothalassitis’ signature restaurant, Chef Mavro. But it doesn’t feel like it. Despite interior designer Mary Philpotts’ best efforts to warm up the old Palomino location, it remains as it always was—a vast, high-ceilinged, polished granite dining room, which was designed to be imposing and ended up emotionally chilly.

Ironically, the original Chef Mavro, even after being named one of the top 10 restaurants in the world by Fodor’s, is a far cozier, more relaxed space.

Nor is Cassis a bistro. A bistro is a place where you go to drink with friends and can get food if you can find a waitress and she can find a menu. (Think Brasserie Du Vin.) If you strip away the French overtones from the word, the quintessential American bistro is a sports bar: a few cold ones and a cheeseburger with fries.

Attempts to recreate French bistros in America usually revolve around some clichéd dishes: French onion soup, mussels in white wine, maybe chicken stuffed with Boursin.

Steak-frites takes meat and potatoes to a whole new level at Cassis. Don’t miss the addictive fries.

You had to know Mavro wouldn’t go that route. Nothing’s particularly clichéd, nothing casual. The syntax of the Cassis menu is exactly that of every high-end menu in town: a page of appetizers, a page of entrées, a page of desserts, three courses.

At Chef Mavro, you can trust the progression of courses. You might begin with, say, a dish called beignets of oysters flavored with garam masala, served with white gazpacho—not because you have any idea what that tastes like, but because you trust George to know how to start his dinner.

At Cassis, you are unguided, and the dishes seem to wander all over the place. For instance, among the appetizers is a tart made with a French blue cheese called Fourme d’Ambert. I didn’t order it, but there were four of us at dinner, so the democratic thing seemed to be that everyone ordered an appetizer and we all shared.

Someone else ordered this cheese tart, which comes in an elegant square of puff pastry, but it was sweet, with a layer of fruit spread along the bottom. The rest of the table guessed apple, I guessed prune, and the right answer was fig. It was sweet, so sweet I wished I’d saved it for dessert, with a glass of port. No way to start a meal.

It was a disturbing contrast to the elegant ceviche with the hint of jalapeno. And it was from a different universe than the dish we referred to as the pizza. The menu calls this a tarte flambée, but it has a thin crust, exactly like an authentic Italian pizza, and done up in the brick oven that Palomino used to cook almost everything, including pizza, in. The tart was adorned with unpizzalike toppings—onion, bacon and Swiss cheese, dotted with fresh thyme. Our only objection was that for $12.50 it didn’t come super-sized.

The wine at Cassis works the same way it does at Mavro: There’s no wine list, and each dish instead comes with a recommended wine by the glass.

Of course, if you’re going to eat bistro-style, putting all the appetizers in the center of the table and everyone having at them, that doesn’t work.

I’d ordered half a dozen oysters. Thinking that, logically, they’d arrive first, I started with a sauvignon blanc. The oysters were delayed, and there I was stuck with an edgy white while eating all sorts of things with which it clashed. Similarly, someone else ordered a Barbera to go with the tarte flamb´ ee, which it did perfectly, but didn’t work at all with ceviche.

I barely had any sauvignon blanc left when the oysters made their late entrance. I was glad to see them, finally, a half dozen plump Washington state oysters. They were accompanied by the two classics, mignonette and cocktail sauce, both of which, under normal circumstances, I hate.


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