Casual Dining?

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


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But here both sauces were housemade. The mignonette was mellowed by being aged with shallots and black pepper. The cocktail sauce was light catsup, so far from bottled it might as well be a different species, with a major shot of citrus. The miracle: You could actually taste the oysters through them.

I’d told everyone at the table that they could order one appetizer. Being me, I ended up ordering two. Perusing the entrées, I discovered that you could order an appetizer portion of the Hämäkua mushroom risotto. I wish I’d ordered a full portion. The deep brown sauce was a little soupy, but it was also brilliant—slightly acid with white wine to set off the richness of the risotto, deeply flavored with dried cépes, which is what the French call porcini mushrooms. On top were heaped those fabulously firmly textured Hämäkua mushrooms.

By this point, I’d finished the sauvignon blanc. The wine recommended for the risotto was a small-producer, single-vineyard burgundy, a Domaine Chofflet-Valdenaire. It was a lovely, well-focused pinot noir whose earthiness just seemed to open up the mushroom flavors.

So the appetizers ended on a high note. With the entrées, we were back to all over the place.

The pork kau yuk was most confusing. A Hawaii favorite among the many Chinese pork belly recipes, it’s inevitably both fatty and sweet—hardly my favorite combination, but then again I would have never ordered it, especially in a French bistro.

The Cassis version is refined, with potato pounded as soft as mochi on the top, almost like a flavored foam. It was, in real Island tradition, fatty. Only the narrowest strip of meat adorned the stripes of velvety smooth pork fat. The sauce was clearer than most kau yuk, but similarly sweet. However, it was filled with those beautifully perforated rounds of lotus root and other veggies.

Given the reputation of Mavro with fish, I thought I couldn’t do better than the catch of the day. I got a thick meaty unadorned slab of opah, grilled slightly dry, totally uninspiring. Except that the whole thing sat atop Mavro’s light, powerfully flavored herb-and-ogo sauce, which was far better than the fish.

The best thing was the stuff you’d more likely expect on a bistro menu—steak frites. It was a dense little hanger steak, moistened by a deft jus, but it came with a cone of fries dotted with some peppery curry spices. These were addictive. The whole dish was casual food, though sort of dressy casual.

Finally, there was a cassoulet, which the menu described as a Portuguese bean stew, perhaps as a nod to people who know what Portuguese bean soup is, but haven’t heard of cassoulet. Cassoulet is from the southwestern part of France, and it’s essentially white beans stewed up with whatever meats are handy, from pork to partridges. Here the nod to the Portuguese was slices of sausage. It looked messy, with a crust of garlic bread crumbs, but that’s its charm. It’s truly casual food. We wished more of the food was as slam-bang as this.

There’s no point in being casual about dessert at Cassis. These are high-end desserts, priced at $8 to $10 and worth the money. Malassadas became George’s signature dessert at Chef Mavro. Not actually malassadas, they’re beignets, smaller and far less doughy. The Cassis version came sparkling with sugar, filled with macadamia nut ice cream, and swimming in a bowl of intense warm caramel, given a sharp contrast by chunks of fresh pineapple. The whole thing involved your mouth in an illuminating discussion of warm and cold, sweet and slightly sharp, chunky, flaky and smooth.

The pot au crème comes in a square casserole with an offset square pastry frame. It looks like pudding, but it’s mocha—one of those desserts of which a small spoonful will blow you back against the banquette.

For some reason I can’t quite fathom, Honolulu restaurants invariably serve some variation on bread pudding. Mavro’s is made with Portuguese sweet bread, a wedge of which comes on a plate painted with crème anglaise and caramel. You’ll have to settle for the report of my dining companions that it was “the best thing ever.” In the competition for bites of the desserts, I lost out on this one.

I was distracted by the tarte Tatin—this simple tart of apples in caramelized sugar being my favorite dessert. When I first saw the Cassis version, I was taken aback. It was a little cylinder of something between two disks of pastry. I expected something that looked like a tart, you know, round and flat. This looked tiny.

I should have known better. The little cylinder was composed of tightly wound, perfectly cooked apple wedges—the original French butter and sugar recipe having been gone one better by the subtle hint of li hing mui. Welcome to Hawaii. And there was more Hawaii, because the whole thing was topped with a zingy ginger ice cream.

It was so substantial, I was seriously full by the time I finished. The ladies, having consumed the bread pudding, were moaning about being overstuffed. “That’s the thing about Mavro,” said one. “You think you’re getting a little of this and that. Then when you get up from the table, you can’t believe how much you’ve eaten.”

I’ve heard a steady drumbeat of complaints that Cassis is expensive. The bill for four people was, including tip, $368—which, since it included five appetizers, four entrées, four desserts and seven glasses of wine, didn’t strike me as outrageous.

Maybe for a bistro, but this is a restaurant.


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Honolulu Magazine February 2019
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