Fine wine and bistro fare at Downtown’s Du Vin

One of my favorite moments on any night I’m able to have dinner out with my husband is the arrival of a plate of Moules Frites at our favorite corner table at Du Vin, Dave Stewart’s Downtown French brasserie. The mussels come in a cast-iron pot, shimmering in a glossy broth of white wine, garlic and fresh herbs. Sometimes we push the mussels to one side to dip hot, crunchy slices of warm baguette into the soupy broth, soaking up juices and relishing the flavors.

The mussels have become a signature dish at Du Vin, where the food manages to be visually appealing, comforting and sexy all at the same time.

“I like French food and the European attitude to eating and drinking,” says Stewart. “And I thought the concept of a place where people didn’t feel rushed would work well here.” He started collecting antique mirrors, vintage coffee cans, plates, postcards and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs years ago when the idea of Du Vin was first formed and long before he’d seen the Bethel Street space.

“I just started collecting things and kept them in a warehouse for a couple of years,” he says.

There are two bars within Du Vin, connected by a sunny brick courtyard of Van Gogh yellow walls, meandering plants and a cherub wall fountain. The main room is home to a long, distressed-wood bar with exposed wooden floors that echo the clunk of heels and heavy shoes by day, and cradle the buzz of wine-fuelled conversation by night. The Cask Room is a cool, cellar-like space with its own bar that has been recently – and somewhat reluctantly – turned into a casual dining room complete with red checkered tablecloths and country charm.

“People wanted to make reservations,” says Stewart, “and I don’t want that in the bistro.” So for those who refuse to embrace bistro rules (hang out at the bar and wait for someone to leave), there’s now a place you’re guaranteed a table. But while Stewart may not admit publicly to wanting to run another restaurant (he recently parted ways with partners at Indigo), he certainly understands what people want to eat and where they like to drink.

“I like bars,” says Stewart somewhat defiantly (he owns Bar 35 in Chinatown and is opening a rum bar in August).

Nevertheless, Du Vin has a mouthwatering menu. The chef, Scott Nelson, is a New Orleans native with a strong culinary pedigree and the ability to create dishes similar to ones you’d find in sidewalk cafes in Paris. Once in a while he lets a little of his Southern style shine through dishes like blackened ahi and sausage gumbo, but mostly he sticks to the kind of dishes that pair well with wine and invoke the flavors of French country cooking.

Moules Frites ($14) is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. Salt Spring mussels are steamed without fuss in white wine, garlic and fresh herbs and served in a cast-iron pot with crisp, pale-yellow french fries on top. In perfecting this dish (the fries are almost always hot and crisp; the mussels juicy and infused with wine and garlic), Nelson has made one of those dishes capable of drawing its own crowd. I am surely not the only person who heads to Du Vin every time the craving for these mollusks hits.

And with a glass of chilled Riesling or Champagne in hand, there’s almost nothing better than plump, chilled oysters which come on the half-shell ($14), or oven-baked and served au gratin ($14). You can order them a portion (six oysters) at a time, but we’ve learned that there’s not much point to that. Last time the waitress brought out three iced platters with nine or 10 oysters on each. They can be washed down with an assortment of beers or a glass or two of wine from an impressive collection. And while my usual preference with oysters is Guinness, I’ll admit there’s perfection, too, in the pairing of a chilled glass of Perrier Jouet or a cool Chablis.

You can dine lightly at Du Vin on cheese plates that are delicately constructed still-lifes of Manchego with dried cranberries and walnuts, Taleggio, or the delightfully named Humboldt Fog. Or choose cured meats like bresaola, Genoa salami and black pepper pate that call out for a bold Rioja as accompaniment. If you’re in the mood for heartier fare, there are rustic dishes like Marinated Pork Chop with Balsamic Brown Butter Sauce (18), Grilled Flat Iron Steak ($18) or Roasted Dijon Chicken with Greek Olives ($12) and equally rustic wines from Italy, France, Spain, Chile or even Hungary to sip along with them. The wines are organized both by region and, if you turn the wine list upside down, by varietal.

For a wine bar, there’s a lot to be said for the food. These days, drinkers in Honolulu are a wine-savvy bunch, and Du Vin’s sommelier, Jason “Cass” Castle, says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the level of maturity of wine-drinking customers and their willingness to experiment.

The best selling wine by the glass is the $9 Feudi di san Gregorio “Rubrato” Aglianico from Campania in Italy. It’s a fabulous but fairly obscure wine, and one that you’d think would be intimidating to diners by its name alone.

“People love that wine,” says Cass.

I wonder, out loud, how they order it. “They point,” he says, “Or they say ‘I want that one.'”

You can do that at Du Vin. Despite its 280 wines and an impressive cellar that is home to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux 1947 ($3,000) and Opus One ($220), you can order wines from obscure regions of Chile or by eccentric Australian wine-makers who are as passionate as they are a little crazy. And you can point at a name you can’t pronounce on the wine list and no one will laugh.

“We’ve got wines here for everyone,” says Cass.

And that’s exactly what Dave Stewart wanted when he first saw the dingy space in Chinatown with its boarded-up backroom and seemingly limited potential. “We wanted a place where people could stop by in the morning for a coffee and read the papers, or come by for lunch when everywhere else was closed. And of course come in the evening to meet friends and enjoy great wines,” says the anti-restaurant restaurateur. “At Du Vin we want to serve the best olives, the best cheese, the best meats … so that when people want that kind of food they don’t have to go to a variety of places to find it – they just come here.”

And while the wines and ambience alone are reason to visit, whether he likes it or not, Dave Stewart’s made Du Vin a great place to eat.

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