Brasserie lends light touch to sophisticated fare
Having eaten at about 90 percent of Oahu's restaurants, I'm less enthusiastic about dining out than many would figure. A few weeks ago, a friend of my boyfriend's didn't understand why I would prefer to stay home and watch the "Project Runway" finale and an episode of "Lost" rather than go out to dinner with them.
"You don't understand," the bf explained to him. "She eats for a living; restaurants have no allure for her."
Well, that's oversimplification. Exceptional ones do, but they're rare. What's most exciting today is that I've had good meals two weeks in a row, and neither has been at a traditional restaurant. Last week I talked about Pearl and its impressive Ultralounge pupu menu. This week it's Du Vin and its divine brasserie presence.
Owner Dave Stewart has insisted that Du Vin is not a restaurant. "I've already got a restaurant, and that's Indigo," he says. He's got a point, but as people catch on to the charm of Du Vin, I'm betting they wouldn't mind seeing a more extensive menu from Scott Nelson. I've appreciated his work since his early days at Duc's Bistro, Cafe Monsarrat and numerous leaps to Donato's, 12th Avenue Grill, Ruth's Chris's Steakhouse, you name it. For a while, we lost him to New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina sent him back, and the Crescent City's loss is our gain. Hopefully, he'll stay a while.
For now, you can get a small selection of cheeses, cured meats and daily specials to accompany your wine (about $7 to $19 by the glass), and this is a smart addition to the neighborhood. Downtown worker bees can stop by for pau hana drinks and a light bite, while Hawaii Theatre patrons can rendezvous prior to concerts and performances, and return afterward for dessert.
The simple menu would not be unusual for any major city, yet is new to Honolulu as a uniquely French way to dine. If you still wonder why the French remain thinner than Americans while downing red wine, cheese and patés, well just look at the portions served here. I have to admit, halving grapes and slicing single dried apricots does start to conflict with the American penchant for more, more, more. I've had people ask me, "Do you think it will work?" I hope so, and I'll be very disappointed with Honolulu sophisticates if it doesn't.
BY THE LOOKS of Du Vin, you'd think it's been a Honolulu fixture for 100 years, but it's all new, cobbled together from fixtures, flooring and decor collected over time from defunct businesses. (If the flatware looks familiar, well, there is economy of scale by sharing with big sister Indigo.) The space is divided in three parts, so don't just stop in at the door. There's also a small patio and back-room bar to explore. The overall ambience is of an old-fashioned European brasserie full of warm wood and polished brass, reminiscent at times of 16th- to 18th-century Old Dutch Masters still-life paintings.
Just as artists Vermeer, Osias Beert and Balthasar Van der Ast focused on minute details to open viewers' eyes to everyday beauty and experiences, Du Vin does the same for food. Contemplating a small selection of salted air-cured bresaola ($4), Genoa salami ($4) or prosciutto ($5) forces one to slow down and savor their various textures and salt, garlic or red-wine flavors. It's the same with the artisan cheese menu, with selections ($4 each) from Vermont Cabot Creamery Cooperative extra-sharp cheddar to Italian cow's milk Taleggio and Spanish sheep's milk Manchego.
Given such simplicity, I had to wonder why I wouldn't, for the same price or less, just buy some cheese, paté, bread and wine, and stay home. Well, because then I wouldn't be in this lovely environment.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Samuel Bendenoun serves lunch to Mari Stewart, wife of Du Vin owner Dave Stewart, above. Below, appetizers include Asparagus Wrapped with Serrano Ham, and Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers Marinated with Sherry Vinegar.
Besides, there are lovely bell pepper and caprese salads and cooked selections as well. Call ahead to make sure the full menu is available, because the brasserie is a work in progress and the staff is trying to get a feel for the crowd, whose presence is often linked to area events, whether First Fridays or the recent Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival opening night.
For starters, sample a pot of 18 or so mussels steamed with white wine and butter and topped with pommes frites ($14). Such is Nelson's confidence and sense of culinary purity that he doesn't rely on theatrics or gimmicks to make dishes sing. The integrity of the sweet mussels is kept intact, not buried under heavy sauce or tortured and turned into rubber, as at many a lesser eatery.
Also receiving this deft light touch were specials of apple-enhanced cucumber gazpacho and Oysters Bienville, topped with a mushroom Mornay sauce and bread crumbs baked to a light, golden crisp.
For after the show, there are desserts ($6 each) of vanilla bean creme brulée, crepes filled with macerated strawberries and served with gelato, and bananas foster, flambeéd in the kitchen and served with vanilla gelato, cinnamon-and-clove-accented French toast and homemade caramel. Bravo!