Vietnamese fusion

It becomes clear upon entering Duc’s Bistro in Chinatown that hospitality is a key element to the boutique eatery’s success. Owner, host and sometimes chef Duc Nguyen and his charming wife of 37 years, Minh Nga, move effortlessly around the dining room as if they were welcoming family visiting from out of town. A visit to Duc’s for lunch or dinner is not only a memorable culinary event – it might also be the beginning of a new friendship.

“We call this our living room,” says the humble Vietnamese owner, sweeping his hand around the eclectically decorated room. “I’m here 14 or 15 hours a day, so it’s where I live and also where we love to meet people and welcome them to our ‘home.'” Home-cooking touches are present in the Ca Kho and La Lot, but the home-cooking similarities stop there. A new menu debuted earlier this year, and Duc’s Bistro now boasts one of the most affordable and sophisticated menus in all of Chinatown.

That the décor manages to artistically combine a baby grand piano, floating Chinese dragon, glowing orange lanterns and stylish black-and-white framed photographs of Vietnam is one thing; that the New Zealand Lamb Chops come served with a perfect ruby red wine reduction and demi glaze for $15 is quite another.

“We re-thought the menu,” says Nguyen. “I was watching plates come back to the kitchen and realized that people have changed their way of eating.” So, out went the Paella Valenciana ($29.95), Black Angus Steak Aux Poivres ($34.95) and Duck Supreme Prince Rainier ($29.95), and in came Pan Fried Fish with Green Mango ($12), Ca Kho (Vietnamese braised fish, $12), La Lot (bitter, dark green leaves wrapped like a vine around minced veal, $10), Steak Saigon ($17) and Breast of Duck ($14).

“We went back a little to the kind of food from my first restaurant in Hawaii,” says Nguyen, referring to the phenomenally successful A Little Bit of Saigon, the restaurant he opened in 1989. Within a few years, he already was ambitiously imagining the bistro. “I wanted to see how we could bring people to this area of town to eat fine food,” he says, “and I thought that the combination of French and Vietnamese food would be the answer.”

He was right, but running two restaurants proved more work than expected. “It was like catching two fish in both hands,” he says, with a smile. “So slippery that you end up without a good grip on either of them. I was in danger of having nothing.” So he sold A Little Bit of Saigon in 1993 to concentrate on the bistro and, though there’s never been a Vietnamese restaurant like it since, Nguyen promises his dream includes opening a “new” Saigon, when the timing is right.

Until then, those looking for a fix of Vietnamese flavor should order the Summer Rolls ($6), filled with prawns, rice vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs, served with one of the restaurant’s many homemade sauces; or the aforementioned La Lot ($10). Vietnamese Braised Fish ($12) is basa simmered lightly with shallots and nuoc mam (a clear, fish sauce-based dip), and its simple presentation belies expert execution. Steak Saigon ($17) has already become one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and it’s easy to see why. Generous cubes of New York steak are flambéed French style, and then served with cracked pepper-corns, garlic and a wheat-based shoyu that imparts a vaguely nutty flavor. This dish is on the menu as an entrée but makes a great shared appetizer.

Nguyen’s country roots appear throughout the menu in bite-sized pieces of Lemon Grass Chicken ($12) and mildly spiced forkfuls of Green Papaya Salad ($10), dishes that sit comfortably next to Foie Gras ($12), Beef Tartar ($18), and Escargot Chabilisienne ($13), the plump and juicy snails that have been a part of Duc’s eclectic menu since the beginning.

In charge of desserts, Nga offers a small, but near-perfect selection that includes crème brulee, a rich chocolate ganache and tapioca. There’s remarkable value and a particularly generous attitude from the hosts regarding the wine list. Choose anything you like by the bottle (regardless of its price) and drink it on a by-the-glass basis. It’s an offer that works most often, I’ll bet, to the restaurant’ s advantage. Who among us would leave a bottle of wine half full and open on the table?

In Hawaii, there’s nothing new about the fusion of cultural food. Noted chefs build reputations upon their Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Filipino roots, combining flavors of their heritage with the fresh ingredients of the Islands, but as the “new” Duc’s Bistro settles into its perfectly timed, moderately priced menu, Nguyen can surely add his name to the list of those devoutly driven to successfully bringing a taste of their home-land to Honolulu. In this lively (at night, expect to cross paths with some of Chinatown’s most colorful characters as you negotiate Maunakea Street in the dark) and lovely dining room, there’s more than a taste of Vietnamese/French fusion on the menu, there’s a window into Nguyen’s world. A place where everyone is welcome.

Duc’s Bistro 1188 Maunakea St. Honolulu, HI 96817 531-6325

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