Restaurants

Chef George Mavrothalassitis with Pickles, the Naked Cow spokesanimal
Image: COURTESY CHEF MAVRO

From King Street to American Samoa

Where Weekly critics have been eating lately

What have Weekly food critics been up to this summer? Eating out, of course — here… and beyond.

Chef Mavro

It was a special evening at Chef Mavro June 29, when chef-owner George Mavrothalassitis hosted Pickles the Cow (in the parking lot) and the ladies of Naked Cow Dairy (in the dining room), for a one-time-only cheese tasting paired with his new summer menu.

I’m always surprised at dedicated Island diners who have never been to Chef Mavro. They shy away because George Mavrothalassitis’ idiosyncratic, James Beard Award-winning bistro has the reputation of being budget-crushingly expensive, formal, with tiny portions.

My response to these concerns is a question: What do you look for in dining out? If your idea of value is volume or if you eat to live rather than live to eat, this is not your spot. But if eating excites you–not just satisfies your physical hunger, but gets you thinking, talking, tasting, savoring, sharing, becomes, in short, a pursuit in itself, you’re a Chef Mavro person. Start a small savings account now.

My husband is Heineken-drinking, truck-driving, blue-collar guy who happens to have an excellent, if previously unchallenged, palate. Every time there’s a special occasion, he wants to go to Mavro. He feels comfortable and serene in the soft light and softer banquettes. He, like Mavro, was apparently a form of seafood in another life.

And even though we’re far from rich, he thinks the price is worth it since, a) everything is arresting creative and droolingly delicious, and b) the fixed-price, wine-matched menu, allows us to budget in advance. (Three wine-matched courses are $123; four, $140; degustation–the entire menu for the whole table–$250)

The highlight of the summer menu for us was a presentation that arrested my attention: a good-sized portion of onaga, atop which teetered a crisp, white, bubbled square of what purported to be mochi.

I could not figure out how the chef could make such a thin, crackling, perfect foil to the moist-to-melting fish with that tricky ingredient. The answer was minor genious: He grates plain old dehydrated mochi cakes, scatters a handful in hot oil, the fish goes on top and adheres and voila! “You know, for me, it’s all about protecting the fish (from direct heat),” said Mavro, famed for various forms of crusted fish.

Where did he get the idea? “Oh,” he said, a bit tiredly. “If it was only ideas, I could change my menu every day. I wake up every morning with new ideas! It is the execution that is the problem.”

Smeared alongside was entirely too little of a tongue-teasing sauce that caused universal moaning at our table: Japanese citrus (not yuzu, kabosu, a sharp-edged, juicy green citrus from Japan) with sancho pepper. Oh, my!

With typical Mavro whimsicality, the vegetable consisted of three well-shaven stalks of head-on asparagus, generously dipped in an asparagus “essence” (an intense reduction). Three resembled three paint brushes, glowing verdantly on a white plate. That course alone would have fulfilled me, but there were six more, from an amuse bouche of chawan mushi in a shot glass to the mignardises (chocolates, a macaroon and lychee candy). All this, and the Naked Cow Plate du Fromage, plus a personalized drawing of the cheese plate by the chef himself!

American Samoa and Tisa’s

It’s my first time in American Samoa. The water is clear and the cliffs are green with breadfruit trees and jungle, coconut palms, papaya trees, bananas, taro. Sure, there’s a McDonald’s pointing the way to Tafuna. But, there also seems to be a lot of food growing in gardens and on roadsides.

“Not enough!” declares a lady from behind her stand at the Friday market in Fagotogo. She sells me home-grown limes, papayas, coconut, and throws in some cooking bananas as a gift. So I can try them. On the other side of her stand, a row of tables display bundles of tin foil. The vendor smiles and patiently tells me what’s inside each silver packet: whitefish, tuna, turkey tail, lamb, pig, beef. I like the rich pulasami, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream ($2) and the slightly charred bread that comes wrapped in a banana leaf, like a sweet tamale with a mochi texture ($2).

I’m directed out to Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, a dreamy little hideaway on Alega Bay, just off the road that loops Tutuila. A tire hangs from a wooden frame several hundred yards before the driftwood entryway to Tisa’s. A set of steps leads to a hand-built deck strung with nets and surfboards, glass buoys and flags from around the world. Tisa and Candy take turns bartending and waiting tables. It’s a family place. Tisa’s son is the cook and lunch is whatever’s on the grill. That day it was fresh tuna rubbed with rosemary, a citrusy little salad, and lightly salted banana fries washed down with Vailima beer ($17.95). What a special place.