Dining: Two at the Top: Then and Now
Revisiting the classics.
At the last Hale Aina Award gala, there I was, all dressed up, seated at a table with various culinary luminaries, contentedly munching a seared diver scallop from Le Bistro and a garlic-herb marinated Big Island filet mignon from Merriman’s, when someone asked me an inconvenient question.
Restaurants such as Alan Wong’s and Chef Mavro were walking away with Hale Aina Awards. “How come you never review restaurants like that?” I was asked. I did, too, I sputtered.
Uh. I had to check. Turns out the last time I reviewed Alan Wong’s was in 1995. Fifteen years ago. Mavro, 1999. I’d review restaurants like these when they were new, then maybe write them up for a few national publications or Web sites, but never return for a second HONOLULU review. I was overdue. I had some guests in from California, so I said, Let me take you to a couple of our best, see how they are doing.
Alan Wong’s Restaurant
1857 S. King St., Honolulu // 949-2526 // Valet Parking, major credit cards // alanwongs.com
It’s amusing, in the light of his subsequent ascent into culinary stardom, that in 1995 I had to explain who Alan Wong was. The whole story, how he’d come to prominence on the Big Island, opening on Oahu when he got backing from the publicity-shy family that owned Zippy’s. I had to explain his location was improbable, the third floor of a nondescript commercial building a block from the McCully Zippy’s.
The building is still nondescript, except that everyone in town now knows it as the home of Alan Wong’s. There’s a little anticipatory buzz in the elevator, from a crowd of well-dressed folks who know it has two doors. You turn around and face the back and, three floors later, it opens into the warm and crowded embrace of Wong’s entry space.
In 1995, the dining room seemed large enough. In retrospect, Wong and his backers were too conservative; it could afford to be at least half again as large. Try to get a Saturday night table. Days ahead, the best I could get was a table at 5:30. (I never pull strings. I just call.)
In my ’95 review, I marveled at the appetizers. My first visit I ate five and never got to the entrées. Many of the original appetizers have disappeared into culinary oblivion: duck with guacamole, a Thai-style beef salad, a quesadilla that tasted a lot like a manapua. Also missing was the classic Wong shooter of tomato water, fennel, herbs and a single opihi. However, that’s such a signature dish, I am guessing you could get one if you asked.
Determined not to duplicate my 1995 appetizer overload, I simply gave the server a price per head for the four of us, and asked him to bring us small dishes. None of the three people I’d brought along had ever been to Alan Wong’s before, and the two from California were unlikely to return any time soon. Could we please get a range of tastes?
This was an effective strategy. We began with three small appetizers, the first a Wong innovation that’s become famous. It’s the “soup and sandwich,” a martini glass full of cold tomato soup, not much more than liquefied Big Island tomatoes, in two colors, which had been so carefully poured that the two colors created the yin-yang symbol.
Perched above the soup on a Parmesan crisp was the sandwich—grilled cheese with kalua pork and foie gras, the foie gras just enough to enrich the taste of the pork.
I realized why I’d brought people who’d never eaten here before. This course blew them away. “Does it keep getting better?” one asked.
Yes. The next thing we had was so familiar on Hawaii menus that I would have just ho-hummed it—a stack of ahi poke atop a layer of guacamole and another layer of wonton chips. Wong’s version is particularly well-executed, especially the poke, which is essentially chopped sashimi.
“We’ve never had anything like this,” said my friends. “The flavors are brilliant.” Well, actually, the textures.
In ’95, I’d complained that the food was a trifle histrionic. I compared the slambang flavors, the ubiquity of chili peppers in Wong’s food, to Whitney Houston’s relentlessly repetitive version of “I will always l-oooo-ve YOU,” sung at the top of her lungs.
After 15 years, Wong’s flavors are still there, but more adult, daring to be a little simpler. More Diana Krall than Whitney Houston. For instance, the tomato salad is one perfect red tomato from Richard Ha’s Hamakua Springs Farm on the Big Island—peeled, sliced and reassembled. The kicker here is the dressing, which smacks of li hing mui and puckers with ume. Once again, my California friends had neither seen nor tasted anything like this.
They live in Sonoma, where there’s no dearth of chefs working with fresh, local ingredients. “But the flavor palette is more earthy,” they said. “This is sort of … well, wild and tropical.”
All that was warmup. We had entrées cut down to small portions. Even better: The ladies would get one preparation, the gentleman another. For instance, the ladies’ butter-poached Kona lobster sat over taro and Japanese imo(sweet potato). You would have thought this was wonderful until you tasted the gentlemen’s version, which came sprinkled in black pepper atop a crab dumpling, swimming in some kind of deft garlic jus.
The only other restaurant I’ve ever seen do this doubling of the courses is Tru, the celebrated Chicago eatery presided over by the husband wife team of Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand.
Wong’s lobster was both his own and as world-class as anything you might get at Tru (or Jean Georges in New York or Restaurant Gary Danko in California). For several reasons: the quality of the ingredients, the understatement, the nerve to let pepper notes predominate the seasoning. I remember nothing that controlled-yet-spectacular from 1995.
There were, of course, two different fishes in the fish course. The ladies got a Wong classic, still on the menu from 1995, a ginger-crusted onaga atop a bright yellow miso vinaigrette, a remarkably light sauce for a delicate fish. The gentlemen got a powerhouse steamed opakapaka with pork-hash topping, swimming in a truffle nage (nage is essentially a broth in which you can either cook or serve seafood). A nage is kind of thin, so Wong gave it substance by floating tapioca pearls in the mix.
Finally, the meat course. The lamb chops came topped with macadamia nuts and a touch of coconut—perhaps the only overdone note in the whole meal. “Ah, I love lamb chops,” said my friend, “but I’m getting overwhelmed.” It was already a good lamb chop on an excellent red wine lamb jus, and that should be enough for everyone.
But you can’t blame Wong for complicating a dish, because sometimes he hits. The other meat course was a wondrous bit of short rib that had first been braised so that it yielded tenderly to the fork, then grilled like it was kalbi. To continue the Korean theme, its undersauce had a touch of ko choo jang, but just a touch, no more, nice control with that fiery red chili paste. OK, OK, so the dish also had a ginger shrimp on top, which was not strictly necessary. But it was good.
So to dessert. At first we were brought two, and I thought, good deal, only two. For people from California, the two were perfect. One was “The Coconut,” which isn’t a coconut at all, but coconut ice cream shaped like a half coconut and coated with chocolate. What really makes this dish is the colorful array of fresh tropical fruit across the plate. “What do you call this fruit that looks like stars?” asked one of my guests. Er, star fruit.
The second was a dessert sampler made from Waialua chocolate. Honestly, one of these platters is good for two or three people because pastry chef Michelle Karr outdoes herself. There’s a spoonful of chocolate crème brûlée, a puff of warm chocolate cheesecake, chocolate gelato and various chocolate crunch bars. There are even little sea-salt caramels in chocolate. I tasted one and made a grab for the other. Alas, too late.
But no, we weren’t going to get away with only two desserts, because there was a yuzu and lemon tart, which is apparently Wong’s favorite dessert. I don’t even remember tasting it because I got fascinated by the Kula strawberries Karr fashioned into a beautiful update of strawberries Romanoff.
The strawberries swam in a bright red soup of strawberry and hibiscus. Out of the bowl rose a graceful arch that held Big Island Dairy goat-cheese panna cotta, a goat-cheese sorbet and a bit of sabayon made with Hawaiian Vanilla.
I love adult desserts and seldom have had one better, the sharp goat-cheese flavors totally under control, balancing the sweetness. “Nobody orders that,” confided our waiter. “Just don’t tell people it contains goat cheese,” I suggested.
I’d been drinking wine by the glass and even by the half glass to match the courses as dinner progressed. My favorite was the Talbott chardonnay Cuvee Audrey 2006—which you seldom see and I am not sure I recommend with food. Still, I love the way the Talbott blasts into your mouth like a cornerback blitzing on third-and-long. You think, Oh, no, no, another monster chard from California. Then mid-palate, it suddenly transforms itself into an 80-pound ballerina, dancing across eggs without cracking a shell. Finally, it drifts away like the memory of, ah, that person you wanted to spend just a little more time with. Nice wine.
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.
This was only one of six courses and they were all this carefully composed, the opakapaka wrapped in feuilles de brick, a sheet of dough much like phyllo, so that it was perfectly cooked, warm and moist, served with a truffle-infused cauliflower puree that would make you think again before you say you don’t like cauliflower.
The alternate fish dish was a confit of sablefish, slow-cooked. “What’s this on top?” asked my guest. Crisp fried sablefish skin. He wouldn’t eat it, but I knew better. I consumed it on the spot. Crispy fish skin is the potato chip of the sea.
Both fish courses were perfect, though I have to admit that I miss what I ate in ’99, the onaga fillet, fresh herbs and ogo, baked inside a little fish-shaped salt pastry. This used to be a Mavro signature dish, but after making 20,000 little pastry fishes, the chef got tired of them.
But he’s not tired of thinking up spectacular dishes. The star this night was a lobster “paella.” Obviously, Mavro was not going to prepare a big pot of saffron rice dotted with seafood, but I was unprepared for what I did get, all the flavors of paella in a refined French package.
The Keahole lobster tail was cut into bite-size medallions and then reinserted into the shell. It came on a bed of red bell peppers and green olives, and was garnished with deep-fried cilantro leaves—all of this in a broth that tasted of two ingredients I would have never thought would marry so happily, lobster and chorizo, the spicy Spanish sausage. The broth was so good I asked for a roll with which to soak up the extra.
Wait, wait. It’s paella. Where’s the rice? Just before serving, the waiter added a heaping spoonful of puffed saffron rice, crunchy rather than rice-y.
You had to be astounded by Mavro’s deft control of flavors, his willingness to push past traditional boundaries—and by how good this all tasted.
I am skipping stuff, little things like foie gras and a glass of Sauternes that was even more fruity, delicate and floral than the lemongrass rambutan served on the side. Or Wagyu beef in fresh Waimanalo green-pepper sauce with an outstanding 2003 Margaux.
Or, for that matter, since one of my guests was a lamb eater, some perfect, medium-rare lamb loin, sliced and served with an eggplant fritter and curried brussels sprout leaves. Yes, someone in the kitchen peeled the tender leaves off all the little brussels sprouts.
I am hurrying past those, because, in 1999, what astounded me most was the cheese course. You can count on a real French restaurant to have a cheese cart, but Mavro actually prepares his cheese course. In ’99, it was a French cheese baked in phyllo, which seemed dramatic enough at the time.
Since then, however, Mavro has dipped into local ingredients and expanded his flavor palette—this time we got a rectangle of Big Island goat-cheese mousse, extraordinarily mild, touched with herbs. This sat aside greens from Hirabara Farm in Waimea and was topped by baby beets, candied kumquats and sticks of olive-oil cake.
It was like a song: a little sweet, a little smooth, sharp with kumquats, a bit salty, crunchy, earthy, the whole thing rocking and rolling in your mouth.
Desserts. My guests, being from California, had to sample Mavro’s malassadas, which are actually baked from brioche dough, filled with lilikoi, atop guava sauce, with pineapple-coconut ice cream, a riot of tropical flavors. “Do Leonard’s malassadas taste like this?” they asked. Not quite.
I had the dessert that came with the dinner—chocolate and pumpkin-seed crisp, pumpkin ice cream, a chocolate marshmallow (which was good, but, George, a marshmallow?), and soup, I guess you’d call it soup, a spicy chocolate soup in a chocolate box. This was so magical, we ordered another dessert so my guests could try it.
If you are thinking this sounds like a pricey meal, you are right, $725 with tip, for three, of course. Remember there was wine with each course, including a 10-year-old Australian Port with the chocolate and a Madeira with the malassadas.
I have eaten similarly ambitious meals in New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Mavro is as good as any of them, better than many, and, compared price for price on a chef’s menu, he’s a great value.
My California guests’ verdict: “Less rich, more familiar than Alan Wong’s. But there were always little touches of Hawaii that pulled you back, abalone, rambutan and those passionfruit doughnuts.”
In my ’99 review, I quoted Alan Wong about Mavro’s arrival a few blocks down South King Street, as well as Philippe Padovani, who opened his late, lamented Padovani’s Bistro about the same time. “I think it’s great Philippe and George are both opening,” said Wong. “They’ll push the rest of us to higher levels.”
Wong has kept his own course, though since 1995 he’s learned something of Mavro’s restrained touch. What I didn’t expect was that Mavro would, over the years, push himself to ever higher levels, and become better with each seasonal menu.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.