For most of us, the idea of “Hawaii” is a series of mental postcards: surfers, hula dancers, tourists draped in orchid leis. Images of a Hawaiian meal—fish, rice, perhaps a Dole pineapple?—may emerge only as an afterthought. But that's beginning to change. Since the early ’90s, Hawaiian cuisine has transformed from an idea supported by a dozen forward-thinking chefs to a full-fledged movement that boasts locally sourced ingredients and raises the expectations of an island meal. With its regional cuisine born of rich volcanic soil, lush rainforests, and bountiful ocean, Hawaii is becoming a top destination for food.
Few are exceeding those expectations as masterfully as Chef George Mavrothalassitis, the owner and head chef at his namesake restaurant, Chef Mavro in Honolulu. But how exactly does a French chef with a Greek surname end up as one of the original cofounders of Hawaiian regional cuisine? To find out, you have to start with dinner.
A meal at Chef Mavro is a bit like a great movie—you have to enjoy it a few times to catch all the details. But even if you don’t eat there every night of your stay in Honolulu, you’ll be wise to do so at least once. And when you do, take mind to savor each bite and taste of the exquisite dishes and inventive wine pairings that come across your table.
The restaurant offers three different dinner options: a four-course tasting menu, a six-course tasting menu, and a Grand Degustation menu that features bite-sized presentations of everything on the menu. Whichever you choose, do not miss out on the wine pairings. The restaurant does not offer a traditional wine list; instead, the pairing for each dish has been preselected by the staff in a blind taste test. The process is very democratic; even Chef Mavro himself only gets one vote when it comes to choosing that perfect sip.
“The restaurant was empty for six months because we didn’t have a wine list,” said Mavro. “Everybody said I was crazy.” Of course there’s nothing crazy about the way the light, crisp Ginsuika Junmai Ginjo sake complemented the silky Big Island abalone and crunchy Honomu hearts of palm salad. Or the way the peaty, aged Chateau Lamothe Guignard Sauternes melted each bite of the sautéed foie gras on the tongue. But…I’m getting ahead of myself.
The meal began with the sparkling house cocktail: blanc de blancs, St-Germaine, and a lemon twist. If that sounds like an aperitif that would call Provence home, that’s because Chef Mavro does, too. And when you consider that seafood, olive oil, and fresh herbs are the hallmarks of Provencal cuisine, then it’s easy to see why Mavro did not fit in at the stuffy French restaurants in the U.S. that run on traditional wine lists and the sauces Bechamel, Velouté, and Hollandaise. “I’m from Provence, I don’t work with butter and cream,” said Mavro. So perhaps it’s not such a stretch for the man from the southern French port town of Marseille (where you can catch some of the best le surfing in the Mediterranean) to end up in Hawaii. The sun-kissed climate, the seafood bounty, and the emphasis on light and fresh ingredients are all reminiscent of home.
But even if you can lure the French chef out of France, you can’t expect him to open a restaurant in a mall. After coming to America in 1985, Mavro was looking for an opportunity to open his own restaurant…on his own terms. “Even after twenty seven years here, I am still very very French—so to me a restaurant is freestanding. To me a restaurant is not in a shopping center. So I was looking for the perfect spot.” And he was looking to do it himself—no partners, no investors, no one to tell him how to run the restaurant. It took about ten years after coming to Hawaii to save up enough money, but he found the right spot and opened his 50-seat restaurant in 1998 on South King Street in Honolulu. He designed the kitchen himself, did away with the wine list to save his diners from the horror of drinking Chardonnay with lamb, and removed the freezer, ensuring that everything on your plate is unbelievably fresh, made to order, and most likely, from one of the Hawaiian Islands.
With total control of the business and the kitchen, Mavro gets to focus on the food. He prefers working on the line with the cooks in his cozy kitchen rather than engaging in celebrity chef activities. He has solid relationships with local growers and distributors, teaches cooking classes, and regularly works with the Hawaiian culinary community to highlight local farms and protect wildlife.
Since fish is king in Hawaii, Mavro is a regular at the Honolulu fish auction (one of only three auctions in the entire country—the other two are in Boston). If the thought of waking up at 4:30 am and huddling over a 60-pound Bigeye tuna in an icy warehouse isn’t your idea of fun, you may have a hard time understanding Mavro’s exuberance as he and his friend Brooks Takenaka, Manager of the Honolulu Fish Auction, show off the fatty marbling on a core sample of the tuna. These guys can look at two identical ribbons of red tuna flesh and tell you which is fresher and how long ago it was caught.
Some bidders at the auction will buy hundreds of pounds of fish to resell to various distributors. Mavro will buy only five pounds to prepare that evening, but he’ll pick the very best fish or none at all. In a way, your Chef Mavro dining experience begins as the sun rises over Pier 38 and flushes the sky and the docked fishing boats with pink and orange.
Inside the restaurant, it begins with one of many warm gestures that combine to create a refined yet relaxing evening. The servers will hold up the fringe of the tablecloth for you when you sit, but they’ll show no pretention when presenting the dishes. Between the vegan bread rolls made with 18-year-old sourdough starter and the amuse bouche of smoky and delicate Kabocha squash curry soup with bacon coconut mousse, you won’t find any rehearsed course descriptions or memorized lists. Instead the personable staff freely discusses the origins of the food items and the reasoning behind the wine pairings, and they explain each course sincerely, answering your questions through conversation rather than by recitation.
Because Mavro buys only the best and freshest ingredients of the moment, the menu changes not just seasonally but sometimes even nightly. Our six-course tasting menu included:
A tender and silky abalone cooked in olive oil and served in the shell, alongside a crunchy salad of hearts of palm, apple, local corn, yuzu and a pleasantly tart ume coulis. A study in contrasting textures in this crunchy/smooth starter.
Foie gras – Balsamic Vinegar, paired with Chateau LaMothe Guignard Sauternes
A delicious dish enhanced by the remarkable pairing. Served with a tangy balsamic glaze, savoy cabbage, a mission fig poached in sweet wine, and crusty, sugary bread.
A bright, citrusy broth—the Chef’s play on traditional Vietnamese pho soup – featuring poached Keahole lobster, Kurobuta pork kau yuk, lemongrass, green papaya, and tamarind.
Pintade – Chestnut, paired with Ridge Estate Merlot
A roasted guinea fowl dish that was beautifully plated. Served with sweet vanilla chestnut paste and slightly bitter watercress coulis, the dish was a measured and delicate contrast in flavors and an umami burst.
Almost a savory dessert, this dish featured a seared Hawaiian goat feta cheese, fried sage, apricot jelly, red onion confiture, long peppercorn from Indonesia and a drizzle of rare, organic Hawaiian white honey that can be harvested only for a limited time before it crystallizes within the comb.
Pre-Dessert - A crisp palette-cleansing champagne gelee with watermelon and mint
Chocolate – Burgundy truffle paired with Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (a South African winery around since the 1800s)
A rich and spicy dark chocolate speckled with black walnut, a truffle white chocolate, and an herbaceous tarragon ganache. Served with pear coulis and pure dulce de leche sprinkled with Molokai black salt.
Petit Fours - A Hanapepe sea salt caramel; orange chocolate macaron; apple li hing mui pate de fruit; and raspberry marshmallow (perhaps the best marshmallow ever?)
Where but in Hawaii could you enjoy such a refined dinner while wearing your “Aloha casual” and feel completely at ease? As Mavro explained, the journey here was long but worth it—although he is always learning new techniques and discovering new ingredients, he feels at ease in his restaurant, doing things his way. “In the beginning it was more suffering than enjoying, but after so many years, I start to enjoy what I do,” said Mavro. Let’s hope he never stops enjoying his work…so that we may continue to enjoy it, too.
Make a reservation at Chef Mavro for your next trip:
Chef Mavro Restaurant
1969 South King Street, Honolulu, HI 96826
Phone: 808-944-4714 email@example.com
Follow Chef Mavro on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chef.mavro
Follow Chef Mavro on Twitter: http://twitter.com/chefmavro
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