HONOLULU — Just eight years ago, a corps of youthful, talented chefs banded together under a corporate-sounding moniker, the Hawaii Regional Cuisine group. Mainly, they had two things in mind: Their cooking would feature the produce, meat and seafood increasingly being farmed in the islands and not exported--everything from strawberries, hearts of palm, herbs and exotic fruits to crawfish, escargots, abalone, shrimp, fish, grass-fed veal, lamb and beef. And they wanted to incorporate flavors and cooking styles from all the immigrant cultures--Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Philippine, Portuguese, Puerto Rican and others--that have sat at the Hawaiian table.
The only problem for those of us who live here in the capital was that most of these star-dusted chefs presided over restaurants on neighbor islands, especially Maui and the Big Island. But the fickle finger of foodie fame has moved. Metropolitan Honolulu and Waikiki Beach seem on the verge of becoming the new center of culinary action.
As a food writer, I've tracked several new restaurants in the city in just the last year, four of them in the last six months--with more to come. Two of the newest are decidedly French, comparable to the best restaurants on the U.S. mainland. Opening within weeks of each other last December, their traditions are in haute cuisine, but the Frenchness doesn't drown out their very Hawaiian flavors.
When Chef Mavro's opened, I knew what to expect: Chef George Mavrothalassitis' plates always feature clean flavors and few frills. The former chef of Seasons Restaurant and the Four Seasons Resort Maui likes well-stated flavors and contrasting tastes and textures
in his Provence-inspired take on Hawaii regional cuisine.
My favorite example is the chef's huli huli-style chicken--a local specialty cooked over an open barbecue, flavored with soy, garlic and ginger, often sold for school fund-raisers. But in Mavrothalassitis' hands it becomes extraordinary: Reduced Chinese plum wine and demiglace form the basis of the sauce, finished with huli huli sauce and sesame oil, all gently spritzed on a plump island-grown chicken that hangs in an oven to roast. The flavor is soft, the skin is crisp and the magical moment comes when you take a bite of the succulent chicken along with creamy super-sweet Kahuku (Oahu) corn and braised red Swiss chard.
Paired with a glass of Joseph Faiveley's 1995 Bourgogne--every dish on the menu is matched with a glass of wine--the dish is simply ono, delicious, as we say in the islands.
With tasting menus at $48, $57 and $76 without wine, $62, $77 and $106 with wine, this is not an every-night kind of place. But when you realize how picky the chef is--his chickens are plump because he's been to the processing plant, where the birds are selected for him--you can appreciate the underlying value.
Besides, I like the coziness here: marbled pink walls appointed with island-motif paintings that create a refined ambience. Still, it's pretty casual; after all, this is Hawaii, where jackets and ties are rarely required except for lawyers going to court.
Residents often shy away from Waikiki, but I'd make an exception to dine in Padovani's Bistro and Wine Bar, tucked in the Alana Doubletree Inn at the edge of Waikiki. Chef Philippe Padovani, who has returned to Honolulu from the Manele Bay Hotel on Lanai, has created a French outpost by way of elegant ambience, a refined French Mediterranean-inspired menu and attentive European-style service. I love the inlaid lei encircling the cherrywood floor of the subtly lighted dining room.
The restaurant's menu belies its bistro name: Food here is not about pommes frites and steaks, as I supposed when it opened. Yes, there's a confit of duck, delicately crisp and moist, its richness well balanced by lentils in a vinaigrette. There's also grilled John Dory, braised veal shanks and sauteed lamb chops. But mostly there are carefully orchestrated dishes with surprises.
Gently poached moi, a delicate, soft-textured fish once reserved for alii (chiefs) in Hawaii, now farm raised, is gently accented with aioli. And I was impressed by the chef's rendition of chicken long rice, a traditional Hawaiian luau dish featuring clear glass noodles and ginger. Padovani's version is a splendid poached medley, made more interesting by shiitake mushrooms, snow peas and cilantro.
Wine at Padovani's is a serious affair. There's an amply stocked wine cellar and, upstairs in the wine bar, a 48-bottle Cruvinet system (it keeps oxygen out) for serving wine by the glass.
My husband and I like to stop in for a snack from the European-style service carts filled with terrines, a nice selection of cheeses and other morsels to accompany a glass or two of wine that may be difficult to find elsewhere. Oh yes, there is a dress code: no jeans, shorts or flip-flops.