Duc's redoes menu right


POSTED: Sunday, October 19, 2008

I've been watching retailers spend the past 10 months readjusting to new economic realities by hosting more special events to entice people to spend.





Duc's Bistro

        1188 Maunakea St. / 531-6325


Food: HHHH


Service: HHHH


Ambience: HHH1/2


Value: HHHH


Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays


Cost: About $30 to $40 for two without drinks



What have restaurateurs been doing? Virtually nothing, save for increasing prices and some micro-sizing. Ouch.

The public response is to be expected. Disappearing pensions are now giving them little choice but to dine at home and pack home lunches more frequently.

Smart restaurateurs realize current economic conditions will take a long time to be corrected, and at Duc's Bistro, plans were underway months ago to revamp their menu. The result, coming at just the right moment and at the right price, is nothing short of amazing. Easily the best classical food I've had in a long time.

Duc Nguyen and Minh Nga Vu seriously considered public sentiment, pressures and appetites to come up with their new menu. Where the old one had to compete with every other restaurant in town offering the same rounds of $30 to $36 paella, Black Angus steak and rack of lamb, the partners have gone back to their roots with this menu.

But, rather than going back to the straight-up Vietnamese cuisine of one of their former restaurants, A Little Bit of Saigon, they've created a nuanced menu imbued with the flavors of Vietnam, tempered for a Western audience acquainted with fine European cuisine. Resulting flavors manage to be simultaneously exotic and delicate, a tricky balancing act.

I've seen many others try to achieve similar results, only to produce food that is amateurish and bland, which is definitely not the case here.

  DUC'S BISTRO's dining room is still among the most charming in Chinatown, with a centerpiece of a Chinese lion in the bar area and rosy lighting accented by the soft glow of lanterns.

The menu looks deceptively simple. You might mistakenly overlook spring rolls ($9), for example, just because every Vietnamese restaurant offers a version of the dish. But I guarantee you no other restaurant's is like this, made with fresh ground veal and shiitake with the crunch of jicama, and so amazingly light I didn't feel the least bit of remorse over ingesting something deep-fried.

The la lot I ordered for old times sake. The minced veal is wrapped in bo la lot leaves, then broiled, and the dish has been a favorite of mine since A Little Bit of Saigon days. The wild betel leaves might be described as the Vietnamese equivalent to grape leaves used in Mediterranean cuisine, and impart a distinctive herbal flavor to the meat.

From there, traditionalists might move onto the green papaya salad ($10) which is light and crisp, another change from the typical heavy, limp papaya salads offered elsewhere. In dishes like these, where fish sauce typically figures prominently in the dressing, the touch is so slight that those who are usually averse to the ingredient may not even notice it's there.

Other green options include sauteed asparagus ($8), sauteed green beans with garlic ($8) and another to-die-for dish of fire-roasted eggplant ($8) that has been broiled in its skin, dressed with a sprinkling of basil and drizzled at the table in a spicy lime dressing. The smoky result is as if it has been cooked on charcoal.

Every dish is so tempting, it's hard to just stick with a few, so you'll just have to plan to make many small trips.

The most popular entree is the Steak Saigon ($17), comprising cubes of flambeed New York steak flavored with peppercorns, garlic and Maggi, the French equivalent of soy sauce, made from wheat instead of soy beans.

I hadn't had enough of the la lot leaves, so I tried the cubes of Colorado lamb tenderloin ($17) sprinkled with a light dusting of curry powder and sauteed with garlic. This is a small portion, about what you would find at an Indian restaurant. Those who really like meat might be happier with a more traditional European style half rack of New Zealand lamb chops ($15) served with a red wine reduction and demi-glaze.

If fish is your preference, basa, a type of catfish, dominates the seafood portion of the menu. I was thoroughly happy with the crispy pan-fried version ($12) topped with julienned green mango and ginger sauce. If you prefer a taste of the West, it can be sauteed with white wine and served with a lemon-dill sauce with capers.

Peppercorn prawns ($12) is an appetizer portion of four large black tiger prawns sauteed with a touch of red salt and roasted peppercorns, which turns out to be much more mellow than its name implies.

Desserts also present a challenge, with flavors of East and West, from a combination of warm tapioca and bananas, to a vanilla bean creme brulee. The favorite is the housemade ginger cheesecake, but the creme brulee is as good. I guess it comes down to your mood for the day. Whatever you feel going in, you'll feel much better after a stop here.


Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.