When you think of cuisine in Oahu, Hawaii, foods like spam, fresh pineapple, shrimp and rice plate lunches come to mind. But whoever heard of French Hawaiian regional food? Chef George Mavrothalassitis, the chef/proprietor of Honolulu’s Chef Mavro restaurant, has been delighting diners with his Franchophile take on fresh Hawaiian ingredients and we decided to find out what all the excitement was about. We discovered that Chef Mavro is arguably the best fine dining restaurant on the islands.
James Beard award winning Chef George Mavrothalassitis is the godfather of the farm-to-table movement in Oahu and a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. His philosophy is “buy the best and freshest, buy local, treat all products with great respect, and start afresh every season with new ideas and creative recipes.” This French chef combines his exacting French technique and passion for Hawaii seafood and other regional ingredients to a pre fixe menu that has earned his restaurant five diamonds from AAA (one of only two five diamond restaurants on the island).
Fine, Pre fixe Dining
Chef Mavro is an intimate space, seating 68, with soft lighting, white table cloths, and Hawaiian-inspired artwork on the walls. They serve dinner only and the menu is completely pre fixe, either six courses or eleven (the grand degustation) that can be paired with selected wines. Menus change seasonally four times per year. Unlike many restaurants, Chef Mavro doesn’t offer a wine list. Instead, he and his staff blind taste test wines with the menu dishes to see which wines pair best. Diners can choose the full paired selections or any wine from the selected options by the glass.
If you dine at Chef Mavro, prepare to take your time. This is not a restaurant where you eat in an hour and dash off to the theater. This is a restaurant where you dine—for hours—savoring each course. The service is impeccable with multiple staff attending to each table. When we visited, there was never a moment when we wanted for anything—water glasses were continuously filled, courses and wines arrived promptly, dishes immediately cleared—all professionally and unobtrusively. The staff is also well-versed in the offerings. They’ve sampled every dish and know the ingredients and how each item is cooked. They’re also well-versed on the wine selections.
Adventures in Dining
We started with a refreshing champagne cocktail with elderflower liqueur with twist of lemon. It was paired with an amuse bouche of incredibly fresh yuzu marinated nairagi with salt and anise leaves that was both delicate and subtle. The warm rolls, baked fresh every afternoon, had a chewy, crusty outside with a soft bready center that wasn’t too airy.
Next came a beautifully fresh, spicy salad with bundled watercress, crispy fiddleheads, heart of palm, earthy maitake mushrooms, peeled cherry tomatoes, purple onion, and chervil on an ‘essence’ of watercress all lightly dressed with a madras curry vinaigrette. This salad offered lots of textures and layers of flavor with garden-freshness that made us feel like we were eating right at the farm.
The salad came with Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc that filled both the nose and mouth with fruity softness and proved a perfect foil for the spicy heat of the curry vinaigrette.
Our fish course was spicy ahi-aleppo. It was the perfect combination of big eye ahi, pepper, and ogo (Hawaiian seaweed) with a silky sea urchin aioli. Served raw poke-style, the ahi was delicate and super fresh, with the pepper and briny ogo offering a hint of briny spice and the aioli enchanting the tongue with velvety texture. The fish was served with sushi style basmati rice and house made shoyu power. The chewy basmati offered just the right tooth to the dish.
The wine pairing was a light and playful Mio Sparkling Sake from Sho Chiku. The ahi was rich and the light hearted sake did its job–cleansing the palate and awakening the taste buds. My dining companion, who was previously not a sake fan, commented, “I could get addicted to this.”
By now, we’d discovered Chef Mavrothalassitis’s signature: multiple textures and layers of flavor and this theme was evident in the lobster espellette that came next. It was a lemongrass scented roasted lobster a la croquet served with a fricassee of avocado, kahuku sweet corn, ribbons of serrano ham served in a crustacean sphere with lobster jus. This rich dish came as two sweet pieces of lobster served in the shell with lobster claw meat on top. The lemongrass provided a backdrop of citrusy flavor and the lobster jus offered a decadent richness. The fricassee was studded with sweet, crunchy corn kernels, chunks of creamy avocado, and whisper-thin slices of ham. Delicious! It was paired with a substantial pinot gris from Breggo Sellars that let our palates know that we were well into our meal.
The red wine, Hermitage E. Guigal 2009, paired with the lamb course was even more assertive and its oaky strength stood up well to the more aggressive flavors of red meat and eggplant tapenade. The lamb loin, from local Niman Ranch, was two perfectly cooked medallions with a thin ring of fat dusted with mushroom powder and served with eggplant “caviar” in a crispy, rich pastry. There were two crisp croutons served with green and black olive tapenade. On the side came fresh peas, onion, and lettuce with little bits of bacon that gave a nice lightness to this course.
Our final entrée course was seared feta cheese layered with crisp tuiles of country bread, served with a salad of sweet pickled persimmon and crunchy sea asparagus that was accented with green peppercorn, li hing mui (Chinese plum sauce powder), and organic island white honey. The cheese, paired with the honey, offered a salty sweetness while the vinegary salad contrasted nicely, delivering just the right crunchy chewiness.
This cheese course was paired served with Pineau de Charentes “Jeune Blanc,” that our server explained was essentially cognac with grape juice. It was also delicious. This playful beverage brought out the sweetness of the honey and was an inspired choice for the the sweet-salty persimmon-sea asparagus salad.
By this time, all the rich food, complex textures, and thoughtful wine pairings had transported my friend and I into a pleasure-induced haze. So we were delighted with the pre-dessert honeydew melon in a champagne gelée with fresh mint that cleansed our palates and gave us the perfect pause we needed to press onto dessert.
We were offered two desserts: a lilikoi (passion fruit) creamsicle and a chocolate black sesame cremeux. The creamsicle, Editor Anne Weaver’s favorite, was a celebration of passion fruit, vanilla, and coconut—fruity, citrusy, tropical. It was served with a sauternes gelée, anise coconut froth and macaroon crisp that provided more layers of taste and texture.
To my delight, the black sesame Wailua Estate chocolate creameux was a silky, uber-rich chocolate pudding. It came with caramelized black sesame rice for a bit of crispness; orange meringue for a delicate note of orange; hazelnut dragées (shelled candied hazelnuts) for a sweet chewiness; and butterscotch crisp and butterscotch sauce that wrapped it all up with a sweet, buttery decadence. The dessert was served with Broadbent Malmsey Madeira, that was both floral and whimsical.
As I savored my French press coffee feeling sated and happy, the server arrived with two tiny chocolate truffles, a diminutive cookie, and a small cherry gel candy. I nibbled the edges of the truffle thinking, “Will the pleasures at Chef Mavro ever end?” By our estimation, not any time soon. And that’s a wonderful thing. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor