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Wine Matching with Aloha

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 9, 2008 1:59pm ET

If it seems as though I have been missing in action, blame it on Hawaii. I am on a long-planned vacation, got here late last week, and in the flurry of departure never wrote an “I’ll be away” blog.

My wife and I came here meaning to hang loose, walk on the beach, grill some fish for ourselves for dinner at a home we’re renting on the windward shore of O’ahu, 20 minutes from Honolulu. We did not plan to drink any imposing wines. For the most part we’ve stuck to the plan, but to celebrate my wife’s birthday we did have a blow-out dinner at Chef Mavro, maybe Hawaii’s best restaurant.

Chef George Mavrothalassitis' crispy fillet of flounder pairs the garnish of broccolini with braised green papaya.

Ten years ago, Carol and I ate a preview dinner there just before Mavro opened, and I liked it so much I took a chance and included the restaurant in a Wine Spectator story on Hawaiian cuisine. As much as chef George Mavrothalassitis' food, which is grounded on impeccable French technique—he worked with Alain Senderens in France and had his own celebrated restaurants in France before coming to the U.S.—what impresses me is how thoroughly he integrates wine into the experience. Instead of a wine list, he offers a different wine with each course on the menu, which changes four times a year.

To choose the wines, he gets together the restaurant’s staff and invited guests to taste several candidates, chosen by sommelier Todd Ashline, with the actual dish. The wine that gets on the menu is the consensus favorite with the food, not necessarily the best wine. For several courses, you can order an upgraded wine, the sommelier’s choice.

Mavro’s food may rely on French technique, but every dish always includes a reminder that you’re in Hawaii. His Crispy Fillet of Flounder, for example, not only uses the sweet fish raised on the Big Island in pure cold seawater pumped from 3,000 feet down, but pairs the garnish of broccolini with braised green papaya, grown in the Islands, of course. I have always had green papaya in a salad, a specialty of Vietnamese cuisine, but never cooked. It’s fantastic, with a tart bite to the sweetness. The silky sauce is a tamarind-based curry, more tart tamarind than the mild curry flavors that enhance it. The Vollrads 2004 Riesling just floated right over all the flavors without losing any of its fruit, the slight sweetness playing well against the tart balance in the food.
The delicate take on pot au feu rests a thick slice of roasted squab breast in broth with a baby carrot and mochi, the Japanese rice starch.

My other favorite match on this menu was a delicate take on pot au feu, resting a thick slice of roasted squab breast in the broth with a long-cooked baby carrot and a little log of mochi, the Japanese rice starch often made into sweets that are popular in Hawaii. Vincent Girardin Pommard Epenots 2002 was light enough on its feet to sail right through the meaty broth’s flavors, retaining its crisp texture and finely focused fruit flavors.

We had George and his wife, Donna, over for some grilled fish last night, and he was especially happy that I liked the tamarind sauce. “We worked on that for a month,” he said. “I was ready to give up. No matter how we juggled the ingredients, something always stuck out. Too much turmeric, or too much ginger. When we got it, I felt vindicated.”

We just grilled some ehu, a local snapper-like fish, and I made three salsas to go with it, one with tomato, lime and cilantro, another a roasted yellow pepper puree, and the other lemon, ginger and shoyu. For wine, I played the Riesling card, offering Pewsey Vale 2007 from Eden Valley in Australia. It was especially zingy with the lemon-ginger-shoyu.

Kathy Marcks Hardesty
Pismo Beach, California  —  December 9, 2008 5:36pm ET
I've got to give it to you, Harvey, you're plucky. I was a professional cook for six years yet I'd never have the courage to cook for a chef I thought was Hawaii's best(or anywhere else for that matter). When Dan and I were in Maui in the mid-90s Bonny Doon's Pacific Rim seemed to be the house wine in every restaurant. It was pretty good with a gado-gado salad I had one day at lunch. Glad to hear you're helping the economy!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 9, 2008 5:47pm ET
Thanks, Kathy. I learned a great lesson many years ago. Most chefs are so happy to have someone else cooking for them, they aren't very picky. I also keep it simple. I never try to show off.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  December 9, 2008 6:08pm ET
Hey Harvey,I live in Honolulu and grew up on the Windward side. Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions. Fujioka's in Honolulu have some wonderful Rieslings that pair up real well with Opah and other island fish dishes. The Butter Fish at Roy's is great! Especially with a nice Beujilais.
Garet Tanaka
Maui, Hawaii —  December 10, 2008 12:24pm ET
Aloha Mr. Steiman. Thanks for another great article about Hawaii. Whether you're a visitor, or are a local, any positive words about our state brought about on a national stage always brings out a sense of pride. God, how time flies. It's been 10 quick years since I helped Chef Mavro open his restaurant...I might've been the one to wait on you and Carol too. Also a few years since I saw you last at the Four Seasons here on Maui. Hope all is well, and someday soon our paths will cross. Happy holidays!
Cedric Choi
Honolulu, Hawaii —  December 12, 2008 8:05pm ET
Harvey, I have seen you speak at a few Wine Spectator California Experiences. Let me know if you need anything while you are in Honolulu.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 13, 2008 12:49pm ET
Aloha to my Hawaiian friends, and maholo for the offers of help and advice. Next time I'll let you know in advance.

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