An award-winning dining experience in the heart of Honolulu
When Chef George “Mavro” Mavrothalassitis opened his eponymous fine dining restaurant a decade ago on the corner of South King Street, he found himself
a whisper away from Alan Wong’s and a world away from anything Honolulu diners had seen before: three fixed price menus, no side dishes, no wine list and prices that put him firmly in the “special occasion” category.
“Crazy,” he says in his thick Marseille accent, hands gesticulating to illustrate his point. Crazy is a word that peppers Mavro’s dialogue. “Of course, people thought it was crazy to have this menu. And they said it was impossible to have a restaurant with no wine list.”
It does sound a little “crazy” when you first hear of it. At a fine dining restaurant where the six-course tasting menu (with wine) is $181, you’d think there’d be plenty of guests eager to order an extra bottle. Or two.
“Ah yes,” says Chef Mavro with a sigh. “But I was so tired of seeing people drinking Merlot with their opakapaka, I decided that it would not happen in my restaurant.”
The French chef with the Greek name and a love of Hawaii has always been on a search for perfection. A trained mechanical engineer who gave up his own successful business to open his first restaurant, Mavro has at times pursued his art to the point of distraction.
“For a long time I was not able to enjoy eating in my own restaurants,” he says of the years before he opened Chef Mavro. “It would drive me crazy – I could not do it. There was always something wrong.”
Today, he might be closer than he’s ever been to finding the perfect dish, the perfect wine pairing and the perfect working relationship with his culinary team, headed by the talented Kevin Chong.
Certainly that’s what Gayot thought, when it awarded Chef Mavro the state’s only 18/20 rating last year, declaring the restaurant one of the Top 40 in the U.S. And it’s what AAA’s Five Diamond Award inspectors thought, too, when they awarded Chef Mavro their highest restaurant honor.
Mavro likes the recognition and the notoriety the awards bring, and the national recognition has undoubtedly made his restaurant one of the top destinations for those who travel to Hawaii to eat. But what he really loves is the challenge.
“It is wonderful, of course, to have everybody on our team recognized, but what we want to do is to keep moving on,” he insists.
That’s why the menu changes every three months to feature local, seasonal products, and it’s also why rare and highly allocated wines are delivered three Monday afternoons a year, so a committee of 25 invited tasters can democratically decide which wines will go best with each new dish. With every menu change, it’s almost like a rebirth of the restaurant every 12 weeks.
So how does near-perfection taste?
Possibly like Confit Sablefish. “This is the best recipe I’ve ever done,” says Mavro as he put the dish down on a crisp, white linen tablecloth one afternoon. The fish is gorgeous – a perfect, translucent, flaky piece of black cod that sits on top of a concentrated, grassy, herbed emulsion, covered with an ogo sauce made with local tomatoes and more of the same fresh herbs. A bite or two into the fish and flavors start popping like fireworks, even before tasting the paired wine – a crisp Raffault 2007 Chinon Rose.
My favorite dish on the summer menu is the Day Boat Catch Grenobloise. It’s the classic French preparation, much like you’d find in Southeast France.
Well, sort of. There are the recognizable elements of the dish (capers, browned butter and parsley), but after that, as chef himself says, “things get a little crazy.” Cooked in brick dough (a thin pastry sheet that’s firmer than phyllo, yet crispy and protective) and served atop a thick, truffle-infused cauliflower puree, the fish is accented with pinot noir essence and a Burgundy/Maui onion sauce that’s reduced three times, then tempered with carrots to add a little sweetness.
The dish is so intensely brimming over with flavor, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it paired with a bold red wine. But instead, Mavro offers it with a 2006 Tokaji Muscat Lunel from Grof Degenfeld, a white wine that’s gloriously big enough to handle the match.
And as the menu travels through a taste of summer in Hawaii with accents lent by France, Tunisia and beyond, you start to think that even if there was a wine list, you probably wouldn’t use it anyway. Through Wagyu Beef with Burgundy-braised Veal Cheek, Kea-hole Lobster Pot Au Feu and Marinated Nairagi with American Caviar, the anticipation of the next sip of wine and how it will impact the flavor of the food is so intoxicating – Chef Mavro’s “craziness” oddly makes perfect sense.
Perhaps that’s why the wait staff all seem so perfectly happy in their work. The service is seamless and exactly what you’d expect given the accolades of those who’ve gone before. At Chef Mavro, waiters don’t gush, they don’t hurry and they (thankfully) don’t say “you’ve made a great choice.” They remember orders, pour wine, make the occasional suggestion and move around the restaurant with elegance and grace.
The summer menu at Chef Mavro will run until September; then you can expect these unusually devoted chefs and sommeliers to banish current pairings and start searching all over again.
At dinner, when Chef Mavro makes his rounds to chat with guests, I tell him how much I loved the sablefish, the dish he’d talked about so lovingly just days earlier. “Ah, yes, the sablefish,” he says. “It’s very good. I’m glad you like it. But for me, it’s done now. I’m only interested in what we’re going to do next.”