NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
Cassis has a more sedate, grown-up vibe than its predecessor, Palomino Euro Bistro, because the prices aren't kid stuff.
Cassis falls short of expectations
When word got out early this year that George Mavrothalassitis would be taking over the spot vacated by Palomino Euro Bistro, it sounded like very good news for downtown Honolulu. Chef Mavro does casual? I was practically drooling.
Cassis by Chef Mavro
Harbor Court, 66 Queen St. / 545-8100
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; and 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Cassis Wine Bar open 4 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to closing Mondays to Fridays, and 5 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to closing Saturdays.
Prices: About $60 for two for lunch; about $70 to $100 for two for dinner without drinks
For the downtown crowd business lunches would continue as usual, food would be better than it was, and those who could not afford the chef's boutique restaurant, Chef Mavro, might at least be able to sample a stripped-down version of it ... if only he could keep prices within striking distance of Palomino's.
Now that Cassis is open, well, the project feels a little strained.
Maybe it was wrong for me to start with expectations, but I didn't think they were out of line. All I expected was casual, elegant bistro fare at prices comparable to Palomino's. But it turns out that the food and prices are not casual enough for such a mass venue.
For lunch, you can expect to pay about $28 for a Thai seafood curry special every Thursday or $26 for an ahi Nicoise salad. I don't know about you, but if I were working downtown and felt I had to work two hours to pay for an hour-long lunch, I'd go someplace else. There is no lack of fabulous fast-food fare in the area.
What was required was something business-appropriate but still democratic, something more like Palomino than not, offering lots of variety in a range of light to heavy plates to satisfy every taste -- not just that of CEOs and those with expense accounts.
Part of the problem is the cavernous space encompassing the large dining room and lounge areas. Filling it all requires numbers; without the numbers it feels quite lonely here. The space was vulgar when it was Palomino's, but it seemed fitting. The room has had a few cosmetic touchups -- the main thing is that the faux Fauvist artwork is gone, replaced by red-toned abstracts -- but it doesn't have the warmth or intimacy that Mavro's menu requires.
Mavro's aim is to "honor the straightforward cooking style and French bistro dishes of his youth," while also showcasing local flavors, which seems logical and not much of a departure from current fusion trends. But in practice some things work better than others.
Among evening hors d'oeuvres, for instance, are bacala croquettes ($12) and socca ($10), chickpea pancakes served with aioli, tapenade and salted cod dips. The salted cod croquettes were delicious, light and crisp, but would I be tempted to order them again?
Not really. They're nice to try, but for most in Hawaii, perhaps with the exception of those of Filipino and Portuguese heritage, cod is not a part of our culinary vocabulary. Without having developed a craving for cod, we are no more drawn to the fish than a New Yorker to Spam. Socca is even more of an acquired taste, being somewhat dry and barklike. I've liked similar pancakes within the limitations of a raw food restaurant, but in this room it feels too meager.
I AM ALL for giving every restaurant a try and lunch is more accessible to those who don't mind sharing. I'd go with the tarte flambée ($12.50), comparable to a sheet of thin-crust pizza topped with onions, bacon, creme fraiche, thyme and bubbling Swiss cheese, and a salad of Hirabara Farm baby greens ($9) or the Big Wave tomato salad ($12).
There are lunch specials for every working day of the week. I had pored over the menu in advance but, my bad, ended up there on "tripe and trotters" Tuesday. I would have preferred being there on Wednesday for the lamb tagine ($28). Lunch proceeded with chicken tzatziki, a Greek-style pita sandwich that was no more impressive than one I could get for $9 down the street.
Cassoulet, the bistro standard of Portuguese bean stew ($25) is a hearty, satisfying combination of Portuguese sausage, beans and smoky ham hocks, but feels heavy considering the oppressive heat of summer. It's a fine dish for October to December.
In the evening, start with a red ceviche ($13) of day-boat catch diced and tossed with tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro, jalapeno and avocado.
Entrée favorites include the chef's hulihuli style rotisserie chicken ($26) and another bistro standard of steak frites ($28), about 4 ounces of black angus bavette accompanied by lightly salted sheaves of Manoa lettuce and lightly curry-spiced fries accompanied by homemade ketchup.
The steak was excellent, but the most excitement came with the arrival of pastry chef Cherilynn Chun's mango tart. With its airy pastry, light custard and sweet fruit, it was the perfect finish, although Chun's bread pudding and li hing mui tarte Tatin are more popular. Mavro equipped his kitchen so that all desserts, including ice cream, could be made fresh on the premises.
Last week I spoke about value and said that issue would be coming up frequently over the next few weeks. I respect Mavro's skill, appreciate the labor and quality that go into the meal. But even considering the new costs of doing business, I don't think many people want to spend $30 on a lunch that is just OK when, because of the Mavro association, they might be anticipating something exceptional.