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Critic’s Choice: Chef Mavro, Waioli Kitchen, Livestock Tavern, more

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Chefs George Mavrothalassitis, left, and Jeremy Shigekane work together in the kitchen at Chef Mavro.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Chefs George Mavrothalassitis, left, and Jeremy Shigekane work together in the kitchen at Chef Mavro.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT

TBD …

The Lotus Hotel at Diamond Head, 2885 Kalakaua Ave.; 791-5164. Dinner. $$$$

Diners have about a year to indulge in this restaurant pop-up at the Lotus Honolulu Hotel, a creation of chef Vikram Garg and the McNaughton Group, which bought the hotel and have plans to keep the restaurant open in the initial phase of a long-term renovation and development plan.

The “To Be Determined” reference of the restaurant’s name reflects the experimental and evolutionary nature of the restaurant and Garg’s desire to bring fun and light-heartedness to the table. He determined that life is made special by a series of random, fleeting micro- moments of happiness and pleasure. It’s those moments he hopes to create at the table with a menu that reflects his global journey that started in India, then led to Dubai, the British Virgin Islands, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.

Fun comes in elements such as a popcorn soup, a browned butter and corn puree finished with a handful of popcorn that adds an element of crunch to the delicious puree. Dinner might end by reaching into your own cookie jar filled with a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies.

The menu features many elements of Hawaii’s melting pot culture, but high points come when Garg draws on his culinary heritage of Indian traditions. His is the rare American kitchen with a tandoor oven, from which emerges his amazing TFC (tandoori fried chicken) and other carnivore delights.

Other favorites are an appetizer of kofta, or meatballs, in a cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, and the TBD … bento, the familiar Japanese lunch box given a Mediterranean twist with a mezze of hummus, smoked eggplant and falafel served with pita, lettuce and other greens for making wraps. An aged tomahawk steak for two is accompanied by a spice box collection of seven chutneys and sauces drawing from culinary traditions East and West.

FINE DINING

Chef Mavro

1969 S. King St., 944-4714. Dinner (closed Sundays, Mondays). $$$$

One of the most important aspects of Chef Mavro’s enduring success is that its founder, chef George Mavrothalassitis, has never stopped innovating. His ever-fresh seasonal menus have always been big on flavor while featuring the finest ingredients to be found globally; very often, that means locally grown. Now, the restaurant begins a new era fueled by that creativity and passion as Mavrothalassitis, while still cooking and creating in the kitchen, passes the baton to new chef-owner Jeremy Shigekane, who has already begun leaving his mark.

Shigekane builds on Mavro­thalassitis’ obsession for fresh, local products with a first-ever vegan menu that features products from tiny farms — some with plots less than an acre in size — most of which are on Oahu. That usually means getting his hands on products within a day of harvest. The chef said he conceptualizes dishes, even meat ones, thinking of vegetables first.

His appreciation for the beauty and deliciousness of produce shines through in such summer dishes as the Misozuke Tofu, at once luscious, textured and bright, thanks to creamy tofu, perfectly ripened Hayden mango, a crunchy mix of pistachio, quinoa and basil, and a tart, beautifully magenta sumac glaze. Meanwhile, a generous charred stalk of heart of palm is served with the restaurant’s classic tomato-ogo-herbs sauce vierge, the same sauce that accompanies Mavrothalassitis’ iconic onaga preparation, steam-baked in a salt crust. Eaten side-by-side, the heart of palm is as satisfying as the fish.

As to that fish dish, so beloved that Mavrothalassitis has revisited it time and again: It was given a spot on the summer tasting menu, much to the delight of longtime diners. Its presence there parallels what’s happening in the kitchen. Mavrothalassitis continues to deliver new dishes that dazzle fans, using mainstay ingredients such as Elysian Fields lamb and Keahole lobster, while Shigekane broadens the menu with fresh new approaches that convey subtle elegance.

Together, the two chefs provide a greater whole to Chef Mavro, with ever more “new” to explore.

BEST BREAKFAST

Waioli Kitchen & Bake Shop

2950 Manoa Road; 744-1619. Breakfast, lunch (closed Mondays). $

Given its modest menu of just five breakfast choices, Waioli might seem an unlikely pick as the island’s top stop for a morning meal. But we’re talking quality of the full experience, here — substance, not flash.

The restaurant opened last year at the site of the Salvation Army’s beloved Waioli Tea Room, a fairly frilly place suited to ladies’ lunches and bridal showers. The bungalow-style room is now more natural, with the glow of old Hawaii in its lava-rock fireplace, stone walls and high rafters. Dining on the broad porch offers a garden view, a beautiful place to ease into the day.

The Waioli mission remains: The tea room opened in 1922 as a vocational training facility for Salvation Army clients; today owners Ross and Stefanie Anderson have built a staff of recovering addicts from the Salvation Army’s rehabilitation programs and the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

They produce meals of consistent quality. Try an elevated loco moco of eggs atop braised short ribs with demi-glace (delicious) or a light stack of banana-macadamia nut pancakes. Daily specials might include Sam-I-Am Green Eggs and Ham, as advertised with the green from pesto and spinach. Supplement with selections from a tempting array of baked goods — breads, muffins and scones — that are hard to choose among, so just buy extra and take ’em home.

Today’s Waioli is a confluence of history, mission, idyllic surroundings and good food. Substance, not flash.

BEST CASUAL

Rangoon Burmese Kitchen

1131 Nuuanu Ave., 367-0645. Lunch, dinner. $$-$$$

Rangoon is a lovely spot, a serene Downtown restaurant with an invigorating menu.

The good news is that it offers the same extensive, inexpensive menu at lunch and dinner, so lunchtime diners won’t miss out on any of the flavors on offer. And the word is out; servers report that office workers are eagerly descending on the restaurant during daytime hours.

It’s a friendly, cozy restaurant, in the Hawaii Theatre block facing Nuuanu Avenue, the former location of Encore. Colorful umbrellas hang from the ceiling, while the low light, wooden tables and slate-gray walls create a muted effect, good for throwing off any deadline-related stress and encourage staying present for the dining experience.

Choose from a variety of Burmese sauces, then pick your meat and rice; honestly, everything is good here, and there are plenty of choices for vegetarians. The pumpkin stew is recommended for its subtle flavors of tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, ginger and onion; try it with slow-cooked, tender pork, flavored with cloves. Noodle dishes, curries, soups and fried rice are also available.

Salads here are lively and unusual, not to mention healthy. Diners are gaga for the Tea Leaf Salad, fermented green tea leaf served in a vegan version with romaine lettuce under a crunchy mix of garlic chips, peanuts, peas, seeds and jalapeno, or in the traditional Burmese style with cabbage and fish sauce. We’re partial to the ginger salad, a similar recipe made with fermented ginger and lime.

As summer drew to a close, Rangoon added cocktails and beer to its offerings, with a tight wine list and sweet-sour drinks that pair well with the menu.

BEST LUNCH

Livestock Tavern

49 N. Hotel St.; 537-2577. Lunch, dinner (dinner only on Saturdays, closed Sundays). $$

If you had to define “new-American food,” the menu at Livestock Tavern could be your dictionary. Its lunchtime list of affordable entrees checks the boxes for meaty mains and sandwiches, with hearty salads also prominent, and seafood given regional respect (think Maine lobster roll and Maryland blue crabs).

The restaurant bills itself as a “seasonal American eatery,” focused on simple comfort food. You’ll find creative surprises as well, perhaps in a dish of fried green tomatoes that’s actually a mix of colorful heirlooms and frisee, with a snowfall of shaved Parmesan. Or the Warm Country Ham & Egg entree, a salad loaded with Brussels sprouts, asparagus and mushrooms, topped with a vibrant red wine vinaigrette.

The menu does change with the seasons but you can expect to find, in some form, such delicious faves as burgers, grilled steak, braised meats, and fish and chips, always immaculate in presentation and flavor.

BEST BAKERY

Epi-Ya Boulangerie & Patisserie

1296 S. Beretania St., 888-8828. $

After Saint-Germain Bakery closed last year, a group of former employees missed its Japanese-French breads — and working together — so much that they opened their own bakeshop.

Organizing her fellow workers is owner Regina Lugue, who worked in retail for Saint-Germain for 24 years. She also managed to get the old Saint-Germain location back next to Times Supermarket on South Beretania Street, as well as the chief baker, Yukikazu Sato.

Since Epi-Ya opened in March, old customers have been delighted to find their favorite pastries again, and word of mouth has brought in a slew of the new fans. Bestsellers include the an pan (red bean) buns, walnut bread, ham rolls and buttery dinner rolls. Alas, Sato hasn’t brought back the Dee Lite Bakery chiffon cakes Saint-Germain also sold, at least not yet.

Sato, who also used to be the general manager of the old company’s four locations on Oahu, has come up with dozens of new products, including breads made from a wild starter base brought back from Japan. He’s always looking for ways to improve on the texture of his baked goods, he said.

A new signature product is the shio (Japanese for “salt”) butter roll, already popular. It’s like a croissant, with a coil of soft, chewy dough, contrasting with a crackly, flaky crust and sprinkling of salt. A surprise top seller is the fluffy, white Family Bread that can be custom-sliced to different thicknesses for sandwiches and French toast.

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