First Look: The Dumb Coq
An “almost accidental” soft opening for a South King Street brasserie already looks inspired.
Coq Monsieur, $13.
Photos: Don Wallace
The noonday sun in Hawai‘i, especially this summer, can result in impulsive behavior: from ducking into a random air-conditioned storefront (“Did I really want to buy that Hello Kitty messenger bag?”) to trying a place so new it didn’t even have a name anywhere obvious. As it turned out, there may be a reason for the latter, but by then we’d lucked into the best croque monsieur since, well, a time long ago in a smoky Paris bistro far away. It came with a knockout drink, too.
We’ll get to what a croque monsieur is and why it matters in a moment. First, let’s dispel any false impressions—well, impressions generally—that might accidentally adhere to the restaurant’s name because of your dirty mind.
Yoon Kim is the 33-year-old proprietor of The Dumb Coq, named in part, he explains, because “Coq is French for rooster and I was born in the year of the rooster.” But the gestation of the name took place during a tortured, two-year renovation project of the now-handsome, modernist space at 12 S. King St., a block ‘Ewa of Fort Street Mall. The building is old, and bringing everything up to code proved a trial.
The logo of a rooster sitting on a bunch of eggs comes from that period. “I started looking at these blogs about raising chickens,” says Kim. He found “descriptions of roosters who would sit on the eggs to show their potential as good, protective mates.” That kind of care resonated after obstacles arose—such as having to remove the newly completed back wall of the bar after an inspector asked for heavier reinforcement. “We cut the whole thing off, the entire wall,” Kim sighs. “Added three layers of sheetrock. Then put the bar back up.”
Lil’ Tacos, $7.
When we wandered in, the good-size space was empty but not uninviting, thanks to a mocha-colored leather banquette running the length of a tall brick wall. The pared-down menu offered two starters: pork belly sliders for $9 and a trio of “Lil’ Tacos” for $7. Served on soft fresh corn tortillas with salsa verde, the cilantro-flecked tacos (choice of beef, chicken or tofu) are meant to be consumed posthaste, just like from a truck. Their place on the menu came after Kim and his operations manager, Ricky Chavez, having opened the bar to First Friday revelers, decided they ought to feed the masses, too. “We’d make tacos every day for ourselves during the renovation, so we decided to make those.”
That one evening and the popularity of what turned out to be 400 free tacos led to the decision to keep The Dumb Coq open while finetuning the menu. Kim’s aim is to add dishes as they feel right to him, hence the “Coq Monsieur,” the staple of every Parisian brasserie worth the name. Done properly, it’s a griddled, buttered ham-and-cheese topped with a crust of puffy browned cheese—with a hidden pocket of rich béchamel sauce that makes each bite a died-and-gone-to-cholesterol-heaven ascension.
We’ve tried the various croques monsieur of Honolulu and, frankly, Scarlett, they’re timid, wan, Wonderbread-y; even Du Vin’s was a letdown. The Coq Monsieur here, though, is worth crowing about. So shoot for the moon and go with the waffle fries, much more sinful than the frites.
Steak and Potatoes, $19.
Photo: Diane Lee
The other winner was the steak and potatoes, the only entrée that wasn’t a sandwich. A simply seared 8-ounce cut of boneless short rib pooled in dark pan juices, it confirms the hunch that Yoon Kim is a French classicist. Dense, marbled, chewy but not sinewy, the short rib can hang with an onglet, the butcher’s cut traditionally dished up in Paris cafés located near meatpacking districts. The accompanying thick-cut potatoes are more grown-up than frites, but go better with the substantial beefy flavors.
With the exception of the “Lil’ Tacos,” the above are not light dishes, definitely not “lite”—you wouldn’t necessarily order them together. Ordinarily, you might add a side of broccoli rabe or another bitter green (such as a more local one, like gailan, Chinese broccoli), but The Dumb Coq is a work in progress and doesn’t offer anything like that—yet.
As he ramps up, Kim dreams of a menu of 30-odd items drawn from a life in food. Born in Seoul and raised near New Haven by industrious immigrant parents who ran a Korean restaurant and other enterprises, he was put to work “as day care,” he says. Always busy, he came to Hawai‘i as part of the launch team for the Honolulu branch of Soul de Cuba, which recently concluded a nine-year run, giving us tastes of ropa vieja, beans and rice, and mainstay medianoche and Cubano sandwiches. Two years ago he cashed out his shares, found the King Street space and began renovating.
For now, wary of over-promising, Kim sticks to what he personally can handle. The night before, for instance, he did mussels and frites. And the night before that, crab cakes—and not stretched with filler, “like you sometimes get here.” On our visit, another nod to Paris was a six-dollar French onion soup. Hearty and affordable seems to be the theme, a thought Kim echoes. “I think about these things,” he says. “I want this to be a practical place, I want a bunch of Norms and for this to be their Cheers.”
Black and Bleu salad, $13.
For those who are off their Norm game, there are currently three salads to choose from: Cobb ($13), Mediterranean ($12) and Black and Bleu ($13). In every group there is someone who will default to the salad, so a restaurant has got to have it to survive. Our non-red-meat-eater chose the Black and Bleu: chicken, greens, pear, pine nuts, red onion, bleu cheese. She looked unimpressed. We teased her mercilessly. Go big or go home, girl!
Then there was the matter of a Cobb on the menu—that mainstay of Mainland country clubs and ladies who lunch from Marin to Manhattan, it felt out of place. As anyone who’s ever had one knows, they make a tasty and hearty meal, greens piled with bacon, hardboiled egg, avocado and cheese. We pack one from Trader Joe’s for the plane every time we fly home.
That over-familiarity could be sort of a problem. Except that, as I dimly recall from visits to places where plaids and twinsets go with two-tone golf shoes, the Cobb makes an excellent foil for a noonday drink. In fact, it requires one. And here The Dumb Coq comes through—in addition to tap Longboard, Big Wave, Stella and Goose IPA, among the cocktails lurks the Kiwi Capriosca. At first I thought we were getting the Brazilian sugar bomb, the caipirinha, made with Cachaca. That was the specialty at Soul de Cuba, which Kim helped to open a decade ago after working in the original New Haven, Connecticut restaurant.
A caprioska (preferred spelling on the Internet) is a variation made with vodka instead of the cane liquor and, usually, limes. Here, however, Kim uses Skyy vodka and subs in Midori and fresh kiwis instead of citrus, for greener, more intriguing flavors; it’s also less of a sugar bazooka to the brain. You can go back to the office after lunch and pull off looking virtuous as you say, “Lunch? I had a salad.”
Though these are early days, it’s hard not to root for Kim as he describes his dream of “ethically priced, New American cuisine.” The Coq Monsieur is better-executed than Soul de Cuba’s medianoche and Cubano and will make an ideal Hump Day lunch for the office warriors of downtown. Just don’t let your lunch companion do the default salad thing. Life is too short for dry chicken on greens.
Barely three weeks old, The Dumb Coq already delivers one great sandwich and a classic brasserie steak. While that may not sound like much, a lot of restaurants never even get that far. Dish by dish, patient Yoon Kim has plans to feed us all.
The Dumb Coq, 12 S. King St., open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sunday, 585-5999.