Where Chefs (and Critics) Eat in Honolulu

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Jun 25, 2018

by JO MCKAY

When a chef and a food critic agree on the city’s best eateries, it pays to take note, writes Jo McKay.

The Critic

Nadine Kam

Restaurant reviewer for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The Chef

George Mavrothalassitis

The man behind one of Hawaii’s best-known restaurants, Chef Mavro.

Where should visitors go to try classic Hawaiian cuisine?

GM Helena’s Hawaiian Food is the number one. There’s a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino influences, as well as Polynesian.

NK Take a trip to Waiahole Poi Factory, a roadside operation out of the city that serves all the local favourites: laulau [pork wrapped in taro leaves], squid luau [made with young taro leaves], kalua pork [cooked in an underground oven], chicken long rice [Hawaiian-style soup] and, of course, poi [mashed cooked taro]. Few outsiders appreciate poi at first so a better option might be the sweeter kulolo, which is made with taro and coconut milk. This is the only place I know of that serves Sweet Lady of Waiahole, a dessert of kulolo topped with haupia ice cream. The name refers to a local woman who sold fruit and vegetables.

What’s your favourite fine-diner?

GM I have the best fine-dining restaurant in Hawaii [Chef Mavro] but because I’ve said it, who’s going to believe it? We have the top American rating, the AAA Five Diamond award, for the 10th consecutive year. But if I had to recommend another place, it’d be my friend Alan Wong’s restaurant, which specialises in Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

NK The perfect combination of food, wine, service and ambience is at Chef Mavro. His menu changes with the seasons; you won’t go wrong with his decadent nine-course tasting menu that currently includes bouillabaisse as served in his native Marseille, creamy egg poutargue and Big Island Keahole lobster.

Where would you find great poke?

GM Everywhere! Poke is Hawaii. But at Tamashiro Market, the number-one fish market by far, there is an amazing selection of poke. One thing – in Hawaii, we never put avocado on it.

NK If you like it old-school, you have to drive all the way to Kahuku Superette (56-505 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku; +1 808 293 9878), an unassuming convenience store that has some of the best ahi [tuna] poke on the island. Closer to town, Da Hawaiian Poke Co. showcases the many varieties available.

And for shave ice?

GM Waiola Shave Ice (2135 Waiola Street; +1 808 949 2269) is a few blocks from my restaurant – my staff all go there. Myself, I’m not crazy about syrup on a piece of ice.

NK There are two schools of shave ice here. The first is the original sugar-syrup version. In this category, I would go with Shimazu Shave Ice (3111 Castle Street; +1 808 744 0465) for its sheer variety of flavours – 76 and counting. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha for those who want natural fruit purées over ice.

What’s the best place for sushi?

GM I love many sushi places so if you ask me the same question in two weeks, the answer will be different. But right now, my favourite is Sushi ii (655 Keeaumoku Street; +1 808 942 5350). They use the best ingredients – it’s fantastic.

NK One of the best is Maru Sushi (1731 Kalakaua Avenue; +1 808 951 4445), the second location of the Michelin-starred original in Japan opened by chef Takeshi Kawasaki. He works with seafood from local waters and from Hokkaido; if you speak Japanese or are lucky enough to go with someone who does, you’ll learn a lot.

Where do you eat in Chinatown?

GM I like Chinese food and for the best dim sum I go to Legend Seafood Restaurant. I’m going to surprise you – my favourite dish is tripe and number two is chicken feet. I love chicken feet: the texture and the way the Chinese prepare them is unbelievable. In France, we throw them away but the Chinese are crazy about them and so am I.

NK All the trendy [non-Chinese] restaurants have moved in [to the area]. There are so many good ones, like Senia, The Pig & the Lady, Fête and Yakitori Hachibei. My Chinese soul often leads me back to Chinatown’s roots, to Fook Lam in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza (100 N Beretania Street; +1 808 523 9168) for dim sum or a new favourite, also in the Cultural Plaza, Spicy Pavilion (+1 808 888 8306), where diners unaccustomed to tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper eat at their own risk.

Where is the best steak served?

GM My favourite is Hy’s Steak House for very good-quality meat.

NK I’m giving the nod to Hy’s Steak House, which cooks it over kiawe wood. You can get your porterhouse or bone-in rib eye with black truffle demi-glaze – I’m a sucker for truffle. I also love the striploin with its au poivre sauce and the snap of cracked black peppercorns.

What’s your recommendation for breakfast?

GM House Without A Key at the Halekulani hotel. It may be the best breakfast in the world. Also, Hau Tree Lanai at The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel is gorgeous and you’re almost eating on the beach.

NK The best breakfasts here involve queues but The Nook is worth the wait.

What about a caffeine fix?

GM We grow a lot of coffee in Hawaii: from Kona, Maui, the North Shore and more. My favourite place [to drink it] is at Honolulu Coffee. It’s excellent – and very different from Starbucks!

NK Alas, coffee is not my habit.

Where would you go for incredible drinks plus a knockout view?

GM Again, House Without A Key at Halekulani. The view at sunset is unbelievable.

NK Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian Resort lives up to its name, with seven versions of the Hawaii-associated classic. Other cocktails bring the flavours of fresh local produce to the glass through accents of Thai basil, lemongrass, honey and makrut lime, all served beachside.

Is there a restaurant no one knows about but should?

GM Ethel’s Grill (232 Kalihi Street; +1 808 847 6467). It’s local Japanese that’s very, very good. The ahi tataki is excellent; the oxtail soup and the poke are, too.

NK I feel that Fish Hook Cafe is too often overlooked because of its location in a boutique hotel beyond the main drag in Waikiki. Chef Elmer Guzman is doing some amazing things. His more unusual creations include an egg shooter with calamansi, soy and lime sauce, Caesar salad with Filipino-style shrimp-paste dressing and avocado toast 2.0 with buttered lobster and tarragon aïoli on bacon-fat-rubbed toast. Somehow it all works! 

SEE ALSO: 7 Excellent Places to Stay in Honolulu