On the plate, the food looks simple. Two thick slices of big-eye ahi tuna, a swirl of pink sauce and a pool of green sauce under a lovely little deep-fried quail egg garnish. I mix all the flavors together on my fork. The pink sauce buzzes with espelette, a sort of hot paprika-like pepper powder, and the delicate topping of green picholine olives on the tuna adds another southern French touch. The green sauce of parsley and oregano jumps with freshness under the quail egg.
Five adjacent wineglasses hold four whites and a rosé, but I have no idea what they are. The double-blind tasting is designed to ferret out which wine would please the most palates at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Chef Mavro in Honolulu. The owner and chef, George Mavrothalassitis, brings his finely honed French sensibilities to Hawaii's abundance of unique ingredients. It's exciting food, and it's wine-friendly.
And, in fact, all of the wines taste just fine with this dish, a compliment to the restaurant's sommelier, Todd Ashline, who picked the possibilities.
"We are not looking for the best wine," explained Mavro. "The best might be too acidic, too sweet, with the dish. That's why you and I are not the best people to choose a wine for the restaurant. We find a wine we love and go 'Wow!' We will drink it with anything. But the public might not like it so much. Here, democracy rules."
Since he opened his restaurant in December 1998, Mavro has been trying to get me to one of these tastings; finally, a vacation to Hawaii coincided with one. With no wine list, his menu offers specific wines to serve with the individual dishes on its menus the same way a chef chooses garnishes to complete the main ingredient of a dish. It's a unique approach.
Although traditionally what comes together on the plate might reflect the ideas of a single chef, the truth is that successful dishes often evolve as more palates and more minds fine-tune them. That's true at this restaurant, too, where Mavro works with his other chefs and cooks on developing the dishes as they change with the seasons. To be sure, the differences in Hawaii's seasons are subtle, but the availability of certain fish and seafood, fruits and vegetables does vary through the year.
From day one, Mavro has offered three set menus, of three, four and six courses, each dish matched with a specific wine. To complete each dish with an appropriate wine, four times a year he gathers his staff and a few invited friends of the restaurant to taste the new dishes and try five different wines with each plate. Whichever wine wins the most votes goes on the menu.
"At first, people didn't get it," said George Mavrothalassitis, who gathers staff and friends to pick wines to match with his restaurant menus.
The first wine, which tastes vaguely like Sauvignon Blanc but seems a bit tired, gets brighter with the tuna. No go for me. I hate it when a wine needs food to correct a fault. The watery finish on the next one keeps it from being the refreshing sip the dish needed. The sweetness of the next, which reminds me of a German Riesling with some age, appeals to me, finally a real candidate. The sweetness balances the spice. I love the minerality of the next white but its texture gets a bit hard with the food. The rosé, however, hits all the right notes. Its tangy balance, delicate pomegranate flavors and sense of refinement deliver the wow factor.
The rosé is the group favorite, too: Domaine de l'Hermitage Bandol Rosé 2009. Mavro, originally from Marseilles, beams. The Riesling I liked turns out to be Schloss Vollrads Spätlese 2004. Not a bad second choice.
"When we first started doing this we were all over the board, but after about a year it amazed me how often one wine just jumped out for everyone," Mavro said. "You go, nice, nice, OK, and then wow."
The group and I certainly agree on how fully the passion fruit flavors and refined balance of Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough 2009 snuggle up with a truffled poached egg with potato mousseline and serrano ham. The rich texture and blackberry and plum flavors of a juicy Spanish red, Finca Sandoval Manchuela 2005, do wonders with Kurobuta pork loin roasted with shallot and sichuan peppercorn crust and a black garlic sauce that reminds me of a lighter, less sweet hoisin.
These and the picks for the other dishes go on the menu starting Dec. 19 and continue through March.
Big-eye ahi with picholine olives and espelette sauce; rosé makes it happy.
I ask Mavro how his unique system has fared with wine aficionados. "At first," he said, "people didn't get it. They wanted their California Chardonnay or red Bordeaux and some even got up and walked out in the first few months. But now they seem to like it. They get into the spirit."
For a serious wine buff, there is a tradeoff. You can't plunder a deep list for a great wine to drink through dinner. The overall quality of the wines, though solid, sometimes exciting, seldom reaches for greatness. After all, it's designed to please the most palates. The current menu pairs hamachi confit with Jermann Pinot Grigio 2008 and a pork dish with Slovenian Pinot Noir (although an up-charge can get you Lignier Morey-St. Denis 2005). I think of it as part of an adventure. And it's relaxing not to have to think about which wine to choose, for a change.
Wine as a garnish. It's a concept.
1969 South King St., Honolulu 96826
Telephone: (808) 944-4714
Open: Dinner, Monday through Saturday
Cost: Three courses, $69; four courses, $78; six courses, $120; wine pairings $48 to $63
Leonard Cupo M D — Honolulu, Hawaii — December 10, 2010 12:07am ET
Christopher Dunn — Hawaii — December 10, 2010 4:53pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 12, 2010 4:08pm ET
Christopher Dunn — Hawaii — January 6, 2011 12:41am ET
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