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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 24, 2006

New on the grapevine: Du Vin downtowng

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

Du Vin wine bar on Bethel Street also serves food.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rating: Three forks out of five (Good)

1115 Bethel St., across from the Hawai'i Theatre


11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Price: $4-$16

Recommended: egg with salade frisee, cold smoked salmon, cheese platter (ask for it to be served at room temperature), country pate

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Cold smoked salmon is a recommended dish at Du Vin.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Have you ever eaten at Balthazar in New York? It's a grand brasserie painstakingly recreated by restaurateur Keith McNally, where the fruits de mer platters tower, the roasted cod is salty with pancetta and the lamb T-bones come with the best dauphinois potatoes west of Paris. (And yes, that's Bono having a power lunch in the corner.)

The opening of Brasserie Du Vin has convinced me that Dave Stewart is Honolulu's own Keith McNally, on a smaller, humbler scale. He gets a concept in his head, and the concept unlocks its doors to the public fully realized, with all the right touches. Witness Asian-exotic Indigo, exposed-brick boite Bar 35, and now the dark, woody, multichambered Du Vin, with mix-and-match wood tables, a long wood bar and many, many bottles of wine.

Chinatown's newest nightspot has been a hit since its soft opening last month, and now has a decent crowd even on a Tuesday night with no show at the Hawai'i Theatre across the street. Stewart has filled his bingo card once again.

But this isn't a brasserie.

As I waited for Du Vin to start serving food (it went a couple weeks as just a bar), this described my state of mind: A brasserie has opened and as I lay in my bed, visions of steak frites danced in my head.

Steak frites, the cornerstone of a brasserie menu, still does not exist in Honolulu. Yes, you can get a steak and fries, but not a steak frites. (The closest is 12th Avenue Grill's new hanger steak, the de rigueur cut but sans the red wine and shallot reduction.)

And don't expect any parmentier, steak tartare, pan-fried veal kidneys with onions or other standard brasserie "plats" either.

Chef Scott Nelson goes only as far as brasserie entrees (what the French call starters; main dishes are plats). And for a wine bar, which is what Du Vin is, that's really all that's needed. So why not just whack the first word from the name?

Stewart started the formula with his beer bar, Bar 35, the rectangular pizzas a good gourmet snack to accompany the suds. Du Vin's short menu is an ideal accompaniment to the more than 100 wines, and the assembled small, sharable plates can add up to a filling meal.

Order three cheeses or three meats for a pau-hana platter. Note to kitchen: Let the cheese stand before serving. An assortment of taleggio (nice addition), GruyEre and manchego arrived ice cold, needing a wait for the full fromage flavor to kick in. Of the charcuterie choices, the salty, smoky bresaola (Italian air-cured beef) and California-made country pate (beautiful on the warm French bread with a bit of cornichon) are standouts. Too bad the bresaola and cheeses looked like they were sliced and put on the wood board by a chimpanzee.

Nelson sort of deconstructs a brasserie classic, frisee aux lardons — a salad of chicory and little cubes of delicious bacon topped by an oozing poached egg. Here the egg is shirred, which means it's baked, just until the whites are firm, in a small dish topped with milk or cream and a sprinkling of bread crumbs. On one recent night, it was baked to complete dryness, with no hint of dairy. It was like trying to scoop a hard-boiled egg. The lardons-loaded frisee was just right in a vinaigrette. Why reinvent a perfectly good wheel? Just make a proper frisee aux lardons.

That's the tack Nelson takes with the tarte Nicoise, a rustic pizza with sweet, slow-cooked onions playing off the saltiness of anchovies. Go to town pairing a wine with this.

If steak frites are still a distant culinary holy grail, Du Vin makes up for it with moules frites, a big pile of mussels in a cast-iron potlette, and topped with crisp frites just like at Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Napa. The generous serving of shellfish looks promising, but the broth, the briny prize at the end of the dish, needs tweaking — a little more white wine, garlic and lemon would bring it to bread-dunkingly good life.

The dishes have nice touches, such as a side of pickled vegetables, the hint of nutmeg and cloves in the juice giving them an Arabic essence. And the square plates fit together to form a lovely culinary mosaic on the table.

Saving the best for last, the cold smoked salmon makes a light supper to be savored again and again. A thick slice of dense fish comes with four slices of remoulade potatoes, a little nest of frisee and a big thimble of ravigote, a vinegary cold relish of capers, garlic and chopped egg and onion.

Choosing wines to go with the gamut of flavors is pure oenophilic fun. Still sorting out your cabs and sauvignon blancs? The staff is all there because they love wine and can deftly guide you through the choices. Where Chuck Furuya's cellar at Vino is very focused and the master sommelier can even tell you in what kind of soil the grape you're drinking was grown in, Du Vin is all over the map — literally. Want to try a Lebanese wine? You can do it here. In the mood for an almost effervescent Portuguese vinho verde? The Famega is excellent. Prices fit every budget, from a $28 bottle of Bodegas Agapito Monastrell to an indulgent Château Lafite for $3,000. And there are plenty of by-the-glass choices.

Sit in the outdoor passageway (the raised thronelike table overlooking the area is best), with a window box of geraniums hanging on one wall and the moon above, and you'll feel like Lady (or the Tramp) during her al fresco dinner. Stewart has done it again, filling a gap with a one-of-a-kind-in-Honolulu venue.

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.