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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 11, 2005

Ambience sets tone for French-Vietnamese cuisine

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Deborah and Art Pacheco of Kailua enjoy dinner at Duc's Bistro in Chinatown. The flattering lighting sets the mood at this classy yet casual French-Vietnamese eatery.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Duc's Bistro

1188 Maunakea St., Chinatown


Lunch Mondays to Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dinner Mondays to Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m.

Closed Sunday

Full bar

Free validated parking in lot across the street; street parking

1/2 Good

The warm, pink glow of the lighting in Chinatown's Duc's Bistro had a strange effect on my three dining pals and me: Suddenly, everything seemed rosy. An air of romance melted away concerns and aroused appetites.

Duc's curtained veneer and neon decoration of red roses hide a classy but casual French-Vietnamese eatery. A black grand piano welcomes guests in the entryway. White tablecloths and real, lavender-pink hyacinth blossoms adorn tables. We noticed the refined details as we made our way to the rear, passing through the long dining room, past the bar and into a larger space with a bit of an Alice-in-Wonderland effect.

And then there was that lighting that flattered everyone and which seemed to miraculously erase wrinkles along with cares. Soaking in these various elements after being seated caused a friend to remark gleefully, "I feel like I'm back in Manhattan."

In this relaxed and calming state, even mildly bumpy service could be overlooked. Menus took a while to arrive, but that allowed us to simmer down to match the restaurant's unhurried atmosphere. A server announced the night's specials, and after a group huddle, we decided on one of them, a venison dish. When it was time to order, we were informed to our slight chagrin that actually it was not on the menu that evening. Duc, the owner himself, took our requests in a soothing French-Vietnamese accent, unruffling any discontentment with his affable personality and charm.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones who thought oysters made a great start to a meal in such a sultry setting. I glimpsed nearby tables with the same appetizers as ours — a dozen New Zealand oysters on the half shell ($24.95) and a plate of buttery escargot Chablisienne ($9.95).

These simple indulgences were prepared perfectly. A not-overpowering cocktail sauce with its own tiny spoon, and ample lemon wedges complemented expertly shucked, plump oysters that didn't have a trace of shell in them. Fat snails sat on their own little button mushroom caps enveloped in hot butter hinting just the right amount of garlic and salt. Duc gave us an approving nod when we decided to try a special of Kobe beef tartare ($19.95). Again, appropriate seasonings partnered with the unctuous, raw chopped beef mingling into a melt-in-your-mouth dish.

These three classics were a tour-de-force of starters. They injected newfound meaning into the word, igniting passion for whatever followed next. We agreed that the trio could have been a completely satisfying meal if it had stopped right then.

Entrées include a soup or salad (each $6.95 a la carte) from a few choices on the menu. A velouté d'asparagus and a bisque of tomato and lobster surpassed both a mesclun salad and an avocado and papaya salad dressed with a tad too much of a sweet, balsamic vinaigrette. The soups were creamy rich and coated your mouth with their intensity.

Our entrées consisted of large portions in the traditional setup of meat, starch and vegetable; in our case, lightly sautéed fresh strings beans. Duck supreme Grand Marnier ($26.95) was tart with Valencia orange slices. Rack of lamb ($32.95), accompanied by gorgeous mashed potatoes, had two bones per chop in a Bordeaux-Chivry sauce (made with a compound butter of shallots, tarragon and chives). These dishes were tasty, but their sauces lacked depth and did not have the robust, full-bodied quality some of us desired.

Seafood paella ($28.95) surprised us. Despite its accurate description on the menu, we had lingering visions of the Spanish original, in which seafood is simmered together with saffron rice. Instead, this one resembled a very light bouillabaisse spooned over the same saffron rice that came with other entrées.

Filet of bass nonpareil ($27.95) was the plate into which all of us tried to get our forks. Nonpareil Spanish capers sprinkling the dish were the biggest we had ever seen. Without dominating, they added a perky bite to the delicate lemon-butter sauce blanketing the tender, moist white fish.

Dessert here was the kind of affair that stretches out the lingering notes of a good meal. A luxurious, ganache-covered, chocolate cake was a favorite followed by a ginger cheesecake laden with bits of real ginger and a true, thick créme brülée custard that wasn't gelatinous or pudding-like (each $6.95).

Duc's also serves lunch with some of the same offerings at lunchtime prices (lamb chops are $19.95). It's easy to find a reason to stop by for spring rolls stuffed with veal, taro and shiitake mushrooms ($7.95) and lemongrass black Angus beef bun ("boon" — Vietnamese rice noodles, $14.95). But watch out for the hidden chili sauce at the bottom of the bun bowl. The restaurant, although still lovely during the day, doesn't have the same amorous feel of the evening.

At Duc's Bistro, day or night, it's about the ambience, which calls you back like a past lover despite its little imperfections.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.