Casual Dining?

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

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?


66 Queen St.
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.


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.




Waikiki Parc Hotel, 2233 Helumoa Rd.
Bar opens daily at 5 p.m.; dinner 5:30-11 p.m.
  Free validated parking, major credit cards

I was prepared for Nobu Waikiki, to be expensively decorated, pricey and packed with (what passes in Honolulu for) socialites and celebrities.

I was surprised by three things here. One, what a Japanese restaurant it is. Two, how good it is. And, three, how casual and fun it is.

The Japanese part shouldn’t have surprised me. Nobu Matsuhisa began by sweeping the floor at a Shinjuku sushi bar. But he’s been away from Japan for a long time. First, to Peru at the request of some Japanese investors. He fell out with his partners, who didn’t share his appreciation of expensive ingredients. He ended up with his own restaurant in Alaska—which promptly burned down, uninsured.

He labored in Los Angeles to pay back his investors—and began to do strange, American-style things like slipping foie gras into his sushi or jalap˜eno peppers onto his sashimi. His fame just kept growing, attracting celebrity partners like Robert DeNiro. In the past 20 years, he’s expanded from Los Angeles to New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, 18 restaurants in all, counting the new Nobu Waikiki.

The sushi bar at Nobu Waikiki, right, is part of an interior designed by the Rockwell Group, a New York City-based firm that also designed Nobu restaurants in the Bahamas, Dallas and Dubai.

Along the way, one expected the restaurants to become more “international.” But they’ve stayed Japanese, though not traditional Japanese. However, nothing Nobu does is going to ruffle anyone who’s eaten at, say, Sansei or Roy’s. In fact, so many of his dishes have become standards, you may have eaten one or two before, just not executed with Nobu power and precision.

It was Boy’s Night Out—and the boys descended upon Nobu’s with a vengeance. The first order of business was sake. Nobu offers a house junmai diaginjo—a brilliantly clear, slightly floral, clean-tasting, slightly sweet sake. It comes in a length of bamboo stalk—frosty cold from the freezer, as were the bamboo cups.

As we drank, we had some edamame dotted with sea salt. No one felt up to tangling with the rest of the long, complicated menu. Plus, we were worried in advance about the check. Who knew what might happen if we just started drinking and ordering this and that. One London food critic wrote that a meal at Nobu was hours of bliss, followed by a moment of cardiac arrest, the check.

So we ordered the $95 omakase. That didn’t seem cheap, but it did seem to limit the damage. The phrase omakase onegaishimasu means, roughly, “If we promise to pay the fixed price, we trust you to feed us well.” Or, “Bring it on.”

Bring it on, they did. The syntax of a meal at Nobu’s goes cold dishes, hot dishes, then sushi. The cold began with a Nobu classic—hamachi sashimi in a light ponzu, each slice topped with the thinnest possible slice of jalapeno pepper, enough to notice, not enough to overpower.

This was followed by Nobu’s “new style” sashimi, a much-copied technique in which hot oil is poured over the fish at the last moment. You’ve probably had it before, but not like this.

We got two kinds. The salmon with a slight touch of garlic in the ponzu was merely good. It paled in comparison to the scallops. Both dishes were similarly seasoned, but the scallops were—well, you hear of incredibly fresh seafood tasting “sweet.” These were the sweetest scallops we’d ever tasted.

Nobu’s sashimi salad was created to get Americans to eat raw tuna and also to satisfy their hunger for salad. Nobu’s seems so simple: greens, slices of raw tuna in what seems to be a standard “Oriental” dressing made of shoyu, rice vinegar, sesame oil, with addition of chopped Maui onions. Why this should be so good is a mystery to me. If you’re ever going to eat one dish at Nobu, try this.

The first hot dish was rock shrimp tempura, in two different versions. The first with garlic butter and a dash of yuzu was merely pleasant. The other, however, was tossed in a chili-garlic aioli. It was moist and creamy, but at the same time, the tempura itself still managed to remain warm and crispy. The kitchen seemed not only to have mastered taste, but texture and temperature.

If a meal is a symphony, the tempura was only the first few notes. The entire orchestra swelled when we got to Nobu’s most famous dish. Every bite of the miso black cod was both devastating and hauntingly familiar. There’s a good reason for that. This is nothing more and nothing less than that local favorite, misoyaki butterfish, made with the cod Nobu discovered during his ill-fated sojourn in Alaska.


As far as I can tell, it’s just standard butterfish—which is made in Hawaii from a whole range of fishes, including cod. Nobu’s marinade doesn’t seem any different either—mirin, miso, a little sugar, perhaps some sake. Through some combination of ingredients and technique, it ends up demonstrably, immediately, better. Said one of the boys, “A lot of local Japanese restaurants are going to get their chopsticks handed to them.”

Then, improbably, we were handed the only misstep of the evening, a steak. It wasn’t a bad steak, served in the large ceramic container in which it was roasted, but after the remarkable succession of seafood, this seemed like an intrusion. Too chewy, too forced, too American, too heavy.

The “new style” sashimi at Nobu is just sizzling sashimi in ponzu, but the dish is executed at a very high level.

In a side dish, however, we got mushrooms—diminutive enoki mushrooms, shiitake, masutake—cooked up in some miraculous shoyu-based sauce that was probably deglazed from the pan with sake. This was served with the world’s thinnest asparagus spears, not even a drinking straw in diameter. The mushrooms fit the meal so much better than the beef that they disappeared long before we worked our way through the steak.

We’d faltered on the steak. But when our server Abigail, came back and asked if we were ready to move on to sushi, we shook our heads. “One more dish, then?” she asked. “Lobster?”

The right question. It was a whole lobster, not a huge one, split, tossed with yet more mushrooms and a butter sauce zapped up with pepper and wasabi. The aroma alone was good enough to eat. A fitting climax to the hot dishes, and back on track with the seafood.

“Which sushi would you like?” asked Abigail. Ahi, of course, plus ama ebi and, please, some more of those scallops. “The soft shell crab roll is also a specialty,” said Abigail. OK, one of those.

When the blue lacquer bowl of sushi arrived, real lacquerware, not plastic, it was worth waiting a whole meal for. The soft shell crab was still warm in the middle, and crispy, if only because around the nori was a layer of paper-thin fresh daikon. The ahi was, naturally enough, deep red and flavorful. But then things really got interesting. The ama ebi were plump, perfectly textured, sweet. And the scallops—they will haunt your dreams.

The omakase dinner did not come with dessert, but we had come too far to falter. Desserts are perhaps Nobu’s biggest concession to “international” style.

The thoroughly unJapanese “bento box” held a melting chocolate cake, plus that cliché of local Japanese restaurants, green tea ice cream.

There were some better things in store, starting with the unexpected flavors of a mandarin orange sorbet atop a praline crunch and cinnamon panna cotta, topped with a little Kona coffee foam.

You had to applaud whatever pastry chef took a look around Hawaii and came up with an Island-style haupia, topped with mango and li hing mui jellies and squirted with a foam made from pineapple sake. (One of the boys, not content with the excess we’d demonstrated so far, ordered a carafe of a similar fruit sake to accompany dessert. I tasted it. Good as Nobu’s sake tends to be, it was an utter disappointment.)

But the best dessert was both the most Japanese and most Western. Adzuki beans were layered between millefeuille, deep-fried, sliced and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Very refined, very adult, not too sweet, unexpected.

Boy’s Night Out wound to a close, with everyone happy. Eyebrows were raised, but nobody went into cardiac arrest, when the check topped $700 with tip. Those bamboo containers of sake at $30 a stalk added up.

Even though we’d ordered the $95 omakase, the restaurant detailed the bill. Later, I ran a spreadsheet, and not counting dessert and coffee and alcohol, we’d spent $89 apiece for food.

You might try to exert more restraint when you go. But Nobu is so relaxed and easy, you forget you’re in a deceptively casual restaurant.

John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.