By Nadine Kam
Nadine Kam photos
Down to the last glasses, dessert wine options on the table at Chef Mavro during a marathon session of his food and wine pairing committee, on which I was a guest voter.
Seven courses. Twenty-eight wines. All before 3 p.m. The marathon eat-drink session was preliminary to the debut of Chef Mavro's Spring 2012 tasting menu next week Tuesday, and I was the lone guest at one of the quarterly gatherings of his food and wine pairing committee, comprising 23 staffers.
Coincidentally, I had been thinking about the art of food and wine pairing ever since I returned from the Big Island food fete at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya was there and always comes up with brilliant pairings, but there are so many other times I'm at pairing events where there's no love between the food and the wine and I think, who the heck would put these two together? I always think I could do better, so this was a good way to find out!
Of course, there are no rules in tasting. As chef George Mavrothalassitis instructed before we started, "If the food tastes good and the wine tastes good, that's it! End of story."
When developing recipes, he said he's already thinking about the pairing. "I imagine the recipe in my head and if I don't feel the wine, I'm in trouble," he said.
To this day, he has no wine menu because he believes in the notion of the perfect union between one dish and one wine.
Chef Mavro starts the duck course, with line cook Adam Ross.
It was great that sommelier and dining room manager Doug Johnson and Mavro's new sommelier, Jordan Nova, had already done the preliminary work before we sat down, narrowing our choices to three to five wines per dish.
"Between Doug's experience and the craziness of Jordan, we are always going to find something interesting," Mavro said.
At 22, Nova is already a wine star, the youngest candidate ever, according to Mavro's wife Donna Jung, to earn the right to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier Exam, which requires passing the Introductory Sommelier Exam and the Certified Sommelier Exam, and a mandatory five years minimum experience in the wine/service industry.
I asked him how many wines he considers before narrowing his choices, and he matter-of-factly replied, "All of them."
Then he narrows them to about 100, and in addition to considering the food and wine characteristics and availability, he has a macho, competitive nature that also prizes scarcity, exclusivity and novelty. He's roused the envy of his New York mentor by securing five cases of Chateau Musar Gaston Hochar, from Bekeaa Valley, Lebanon, to her two.
One surprise was Manzanilla la Gitana sherry, said to have a light, refreshing almond flavor, but I couldn't get beyond the fact that it smelled like Kikkoman soy sauce. It didn't capture our vote.
"I like giving people something they've never tried before," Jordan said, and his big score of the day was with Barolo Chinato Cocchi that blew us all away with its sweet, deep plummy, raisony flavor that had little to do with its nose, the smell of medicine chest, camphor, peppermint, Ben-Gay and Salonpas. Unforgettable.
Jordan Nova shows the emptied Barolo Chinato Cocchi bottle that won over the tasting committee.
With a recipe that hasn't changed since its introduction in 1891, it's infused with quinine bark, rhubarb, ginger and a variety of other aromatic spices. It's said to pair exceptionally well with dark chocolate, and I could taste why that would work. I really liked it, but didn't vote for it for the cheese course because I wasn't sure most people would appreciate the immediate shock it delivers. And the sweetness, I thought, overpowered the dish it was to accompany.
So when it won its place at the table, my thought was, it wasn't the best pairing, palate-wise, but it was certainly the most daring and exciting choice. As Mavro said, "If you do what people understand, you're going to (end up) with hot dogs and hamburgers."
Dishes will continue to be refined through the menu's March 20 start date, but here's what was on the table March 12. For reservations, call 944-4714:
Scallop Escabeche and crostini with Maine Diver scallop, in a vinegary Provençal-Portuguese style usually employed with sardines. In our first wine pairing, there was a tie between a Leitz 2009 riesling and Sauvignon blanc. Chef Mavro and I both voted for the Leitz, but in a tie, sommelier Jordan Nova makes the final decision, and he chose the Fiddlehead Cellars sauvignon blanc.
There is some Japanese inspiration in this menu, though the chef teased, "Chef Mavro is not going to be the next kaiseke restaurant." The second course is a maitake mushroom salad with yuzu, a touch of sesame oil, kabocha and bacon, with ribbons of salsifi, a gobo-like root from Belgium. This will be paired with Cristom Viognier Estate 2010.
Foie gras lemongrass with duck consommé and kanten pot-au-feu, which the chef is still developing for the final menu. This will be paired with Rheingau 2004 riesling.
Mochi-crusted opakapaka with kabosu sauce and asparagus puree. Kabosu is a citrus similar to yuzu. This was one of my favorite dishes. The crisp mochi crust was amazing, arising out of experimenting earlier this year with New Year's mochi. As for the other ingredients, Mavro said the dish is an example of "cooking from the market." This will be paired with refreshing Botani 2010 Moscatel Seco.
OK, maybe I lied and this was my favorite dish, lobster basil with foam essence of lobster. An OMG moment. Mavro said, "Basil oil and lobster is a kind of love affair. Lobster goes so well with basil," a combination I hadn't noted before, but wow! Staffers had lamented saying goodbye to last season's lobster risotto, but this course changed their minds. Note that actual tasting portion will have two or three sections, not the whole tail.
For the first time, Chef Mavro is introducing a menu without a beef course, because "I'm totally tired of beef," he said. "I've been doing beef 25 years in this country just to please the market. I think I'm old enough now to please myself. I'm getting so much more inspiration from duck, squab and black-foot chicken. I think diners will be pleased with his Grimaud Farm duck, presented with a classic orange sauce, green mango and Kahuku sweet corn and shiso fritter.
The final course is a Big Island goat cheese, lemon zest and chive mousse served with arugula and Mavro's strawberry "minute" jam, which he says he can now produce in 45 seconds by getting a skillet smoking hot before pouring in his mix of lemon, sugar and strawberries. Staffers had also lamented letting go of winter's brie course, but Mavro said, "That's life."