Having lived for six years in Vietnam, there are certain things I feel I can legitimately claim to know about the country. One is its cuisine. In my fondness for Vietnamese food I sometimes struggle with the idea of “old dishes made in new ways,” which is why I generally don’t like restaurants such as the Slanted Door in San Francisco. Fusion, I’m not your biggest fan.
French Vietnamese cuisine, which traces its origins to 19th century French colonialism, is one of the earliest versions of East-West culinary fusion. Duc’s Bistro follows in that tradition.
Duc’s isn’t flashy. With its dimly lit interior, generously spaced tables, gorgeous black-and-white photos of the Mekong Delta, and a cozy wooden bar between dining areas, Duc’s offers a charmingly intimate setting. The muted atmosphere exudes old Vietnam with a hint of modern urbanity.
But enough about what Duc’s looks like. We came to eat, and we nearly ripped the menus from our waiter’s hands when he brought them over. We started off with fire-roasted eggplant. The scattered mint contrasted refreshingly with its rather deep, smoky taste. My wife says that the Japanese call the eggplant “the beef of all vegetables” because of its meaty texture and hearty flavor, and this dish exemplified that. If you like eggplant, you’ll be glad to find this on the menu. The dish’s flavor harmonized well with the bath of fish sauce we gave it before attacking it with our table implements.
The Breast of Duck Saigon was, as my wife put it, “really ducky,” by which I think she meant something like “dense with a ducky essence.” This, along with my interpretation, should be taken as a compliment. Served with nuoc cham sauce, which in my opinion should be poured liberally on every item of food we eat, Vietnamese or otherwise, and perhaps even replace water as the medium in which we wash ourselves and our clothes, the duck acquired a sweet garlicky tang that made the dish moister and more flavorful.
The Pan-Fried Fish (Vietnamese catfish) with Green Mango, though a bit disappointing to look at due to its lack of accompaniment and the brownish yellow cast of the fish, julienned mango, and sauce in which it lay, was the better dish. And the fact that it was batter-fried and soft on the outside didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it, though my experience in Vietnam led me to expect it would be served as a whole fish with a crispy skin. Our waiter explained that the catfish was flown in from Vietnam, where it had been raised in a Mekong Delta fish farm. I’m not sure that knowing this made the dish more appetizing or less (I’ve visited those fish farms, and while they’re fascinating to see they also stink to high heaven), but it sure tasted good.
While the presentation of both entrées was elegant, there seemed to be more plate than fish or duck, and I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to the idea of serving even one vegetable alongside a main dish. But, in the spirit of forgiveness, I decided they must have run out. No matter that every third shop in Chinatown sells produce on the sidewalk…
Soon it was time for dessert. Although the Ginger Vanilla Cheesecake came highly recommended, a latent chocolate craving reared without warning and began fiercely to ravage our innards, so we went with a generous slice of Flourless Chocolate Cake on a plate puddled tantalizingly with warm vanilla bean sauce and a sliced strawberry. While there was no escaping its chocolaty goodness, and no desire to, either, quite frankly, we found the double layer of chocolate refreshingly light and not the least bit cloying. All the desserts served here are made in-house by Duc’s wife, Minh Nga, who is clearly a genius with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberries, and apparently lots of other sweet things, too.
A serendipitous moment came when we discovered that Duc’s carries authentic Vietnamese beer. Not wanting to squander the chance to partake, we ordered a bottle of “33,” or, as the Vietnamese call it, ba muoi ba, which, it should be noted, is categorically different from the number “35″ and its association in Vietnam with goats and male randiness. (Don’t ask.) Served in a chilled glass, the 33 went down so smoothly it induced pleasant flashbacks to sweltering nights in Saigon where the only escape from the heat was, well, through more of the same: delicious chilled beer.
Duc’s relatively slight menu is a classy and successful fusion of France and Vietnam; a fusion that rightfully, despite my earlier protest, holds an esteemed place in the panoply of world cuisines. If you’re seeking authentic Vietnamese or French fare you’re probably better off going to a Vietnamese or French restaurant. This isn’t the kind of food I had in Vietnam. Then again, as a French Vietnamese restaurant it doesn’t aspire to be, and that’s part of what makes it unique and worth relishing. It’s fancier and more expensive than Vietnamese food, but it’s just as delicious in its French-influenced way.
Duc’s Bistro (www.ducsbistro.com) is in Chinatown, near the corner of N Beretania and Maunakea. Curbside parking is free after 6 p.m. and the lot across the street is free with validation. 808-531-6325.
Monday-Friday: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Saturday: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.