35th Hale ‘Aina Winner: Chef Mavro Celebrates 20 Years of Promoting Local Food
Chef-owner George Mavrothalassitis wants to tell us what to eat for dinner.
Onaga Provençale with fennel, tomato, zucchini, Pernod and lemon-extra-virgin olive oil emulsion.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Tasty well-crafted smaller dishes carefully paired with specific wines. We should listen.
Chef-owner George Mavrothalassitis’ eponymous restaurant endures by paying attention to the finer details, including some surprises you won’t find elsewhere on the island. Of late, that’s included a 2007 white wine from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
One of the 12 founding chefs of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Mavrothalassitis remains committed to sourcing most ingredients fresh and local, serving elevated Hawai‘i food that’s rooted in his French seaport hometown of Marseilles.
A discreet frosted glass window marks Chef Mavro’s location on the unassuming corner of McCully and King streets—the nearest neighbors include a bank, a hip barber shop and a Jack in the Box. Yet as other O‘ahu restaurants open and close with alarming frequency, this one survives.
But when the restaurant opened 20 years ago, Mavrothalassitis says people scoffed at his plan to offer diners only wines that he thought paired well with, even transformed, each dish. Other restaurants stocked multiple cases of wine while he’d buy six or 12 bottles at a time. His wine merchant told him: “What are you doing? You are crazy, you are killing us,” the outraged retelling softened by the chef’s French-inflected narration.
Mavrothalassitis stuck with it, rather than watching aghast as guests ordered sauvignon blanc with lamb or merlot with oysters. “Some people left,” he admits. “Where is my chardonnay?” they asked indignantly.
After six months, the restaurant was struggling to establish a fine-dining reputation in a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood, but Mavro still refused to provide a wine list that offered popular picks. “My waiter used to say to me, ‘Chef, can you stop the bullshit, please?’” Mavrothalassitis recalls.
He moved to Hawai‘i in 1988, lured first by the post of executive chef at La Mer at The Halekūlani, before moving on to the Four Seasons Maui resort. Since then, he has garnered just about every food honor possible: He’s earned AAA’s Five Diamond designation 10 years in a row, has been dubbed one of the 11 most important French chefs working in America, has a spot among Gayot’s top 40 U.S. restaurants, is a James Beard Award winner and is a frequent winner of our own Hale ‘Aina awards.
SEE ALSO: 35th Annual Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Restaurants in Hawai‘i
Chef-owner George Mavrothalassitis (left) shares a laugh with executive chef Jeremy Shigekane.
The chef resembles his food: saucy, original and memorable. His gray curls bob, his eyes widen behind his glasses when he emphasizes a point. He sat down with me to explain his philosophy: “We buy only what is good. We buy what we need for the day. I buy my fish every day.”
Dinner typically features an eclectic mix of ingredients: lobster from Keāhole, wagyu beef from Japan, eggs from Peterson’s Upland Farm in Wahiawā and truffles from France or Australia presented to diners with a flourish, in a wooden box.
For example, a recent 20th anniversary menu appetizer consisted of a tender diver scallop, precisely cooked, split in half and served with a hibiscus jus, a disc of ume kanten and slivers of shiso leaves, paired with a slightly sweet Junmai Daiginjo sake from Shizuoka.
Li hing mango and a sherry vinegar glaze topped a wedge of rich seared foie gras to lend a tart-sweet balance to the dish, another example of the intersection of local and global ingredients.
For most of us, a Mavro meal is an indulgence to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion. Tasting menus are offered at different levels: four courses for $98, five courses for $118 and the “grand degustation” menu for $185. Wine pairings cost more.
Although the grand tasting bills itself as nine-course, it comes with the added niceties of an amuse-bouche appetizer, pre-dessert treat and sweet mignardises, a selection of tiny confections, to end the meal.
During dinner service, restaurant manager Steve Mar circles with the smooth glide of a waterbird, touching down briefly to grab a plate, deliver a course, check on the wine. He’s been with the chef for about 15 years total.
Mar says the restaurant succeeds because of a combination of the chef’s creativity, connections and business sense backed by a good team preparing and serving uncommon food and drink. “I think he’s able to get the best products worldwide,” Mar says.
Mar oversees the wine committee that tastes an average of five potential wines to pair with each course. He describes the process as a blend of knowledge and adventure, with a hint of lucky accident.
“You’ve got to taste the food,” he explains, including each sauce and garnish. And be ready for surprises. For the truffle risotto, he felt confident a brunello or Barolo would be perfect. Then he tasted it with an amarone. “It just blew them away,” Mar says. “It matched the richness of the truffles.”
Mar is especially fond of an egg dish with potato foam, prosciutto and either truffles or the briny poutargue, a cured fish roe, that recurs on the menu: “I nicknamed it breakfast in heaven.” Mar says the late Sen. Dan Inouye liked the dish so much, “he wanted it for his dessert, too.”
SEE ALSO: Herringbone Waikīkī is Hawai‘i’s Best New Restaurant
Hawai‘i Island goat cheese with pohā berry jam and ogo, drizzled with kīawe honey.
On a good night, about 40 guests will dine from the multicourse tasting menu, roughly split evenly between residents and tourists. In 2016, Mavrothalassitis experimented with adding an à la carte menu but, thankfully, found guests preferred the tasting menu, which leaves diners making fewer choices: number of courses; wagyu beef or lamb; house specialty add-ons of the signature salt-baked onaga or chanterelle mushroom risotto.
Mavrothalassitis and Mar say they enjoy working with talented rising chefs who they know are drawn to the restaurant as a stepping stone. Among them: chefs Adam Ross, now in Napa Valley; Kevin Chong, cooking at Disney in Florida; Andrew Le from The Pig & The Lady; Jonathan Mizukami, formerly of Vintage Cave; and current executive chef Jeremy Shigekane.
Shigekane appreciates the discipline, the high standards and the family-run-business feeling of the restaurant. “When you come here, it’s not just the food and the good service; we sell an experience,” he says.
Now that hot new dining destinations can be casual bistros, bars or upscale food courts, that reputation can work against them. “For us, it’s a challenge, because when people think Mavro, they think it’s expensive and untouchable,” Shigekane says. He is looking for ways to showcase the value of Chef Mavro to more local residents, especially those willing to splurge on fine food while traveling to New York, San Francisco or Las Vegas.
Shigekane knows those culinary scenes firsthand. After growing up in Mililani, Shigekane went to culinary school in San Francisco, then trained and worked for prestigious restaurants in California and New York before returning home. “I’ve always wanted to work here throughout my career. I told the chef I came here three times before he hired me and the pastry chef actually got me in,” he says.
SEE ALSO: Peter Merriman is Hawai‘i’s Restaurateur of the Year
But Shigekane left in 2015 when offered a job at The Royal Hawaiian hotel. Mavrothalassitis was sorry to see him go, but says he couldn’t top a six-figure salary.
Now, it’s hard to tell which chef is happier that Shigekane is back. Mavro had hired Mizukami after Shigekane left. Back then, Mavrothalassitis was flirting with the idea of trimming his work schedule, traveling more with his wife, Donna Jung, and turning the restaurant over to the younger chef. Mizukami seemed eager to take over—but Mavrothalassitis soon realized that he wasn’t ready to sell, cut back or retire. Mizukami moved on and Shigekane came back.
When brainstorming new dishes, Shigekane studies earlier Mavro menus, then thinks about what he can add while retaining the chef’s iconic style. For example, he likes the idea of a mochi crust but chooses to put it on a vegetable instead of the more common fish preparation. “I’d rather just crust the okra,” he says, which gives it a light, crispy tempuralike feel. “I try and make it as much of the chef’s as I can, with a little bit of me in there.”
Both chefs clearly enjoy their work and appreciate the people they work with. When Shigekane hires cooks he requires them to commit to a year. He teaches them to prep their own food, building on what they’ve learned, and encourages them to be more detail-oriented.
“I think they’re here because they want to be better and I try and push them,” Shigekane says.
SEE ALSO: The Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Hot Pot in Honolulu
Restaurant manager Steve Mar.
“The chef’s kind of like my father at work. It’s both good and bad,” Shigekane says. “A couple of weeks ago, I was sick and I didn’t want to go to the doctor. He made an appointment for me.”
Mavrothalassitis is now content with running the one restaurant. In 2007, he opened a second, Cassis by Chef Mavro, in the sprawling Harbor Court space that had housed Palomino restaurant. He says he realized that the location, size and his style weren’t working and closed months later.
Both Mavrothalassitis and Shigekane seem to have found a good groove for themselves and diners, continuing the theme of pairings that enhance the dining experience.
“In 10 years, I think we’ll still be here,” Shigekane says.
Says Mavrothalassitis: “I have a fantastic job. My job is to make people happy.”
Chef Mavro, 1969 S. King St., (808) 944-4714, chefmavro.com
READ MORE STORIES BY ROBBIE DINGEMAN