Old Friends, Good Wine

Cheers to a civilized night out.

Valentine’s Day is back. Time to write on something romantic. What could be more romantic than wine bars?

It feels like you’re in Paris, but Brasserie Du Vin is on Bethel Street, in Honolulu, where they will gladly pour you a glass of wine. photo: Monte Costa

Then again, that might seem insensitive to those readers who find themselves in an unromantic, or perhaps post-romantic, frame of mind. For those souls, I offer the example of actor Johnny Depp.

In 1990, Depp, enamored of actress Winona Ryder, had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his right bicep. When the two broke up, Depp transformed the tattoo to “Wino Forever”—which, his friends pointed out, was perhaps more accurate.

Not a bad lesson. No matter where you are vis-à-vis romance, a wine bar may be your perfect refuge. Youth may give us love and roses, observed the Irish poet Thomas Moore, but age gives us wine and old friends.

Market City Shopping Center
2919 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 739-7719
Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 12 midnight; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

“I need company, but I’m on a tight schedule,” said my old friend, who’s going through a sadder, but wiser phase. We settled on a quick bite at Formaggio.

When I arrived, she was already seated. “I like the bruschetta here,” she said. “So I ordered some.” It came three ways: tomato and basil; portobello mushrooms, made even more mushroomy with truffle oil; and—this was the winner—goat cheese and bell peppers, the peppers smoky and sweet.

For the bruschetta, we chose a 2-ounce tasting of the pinot grigio from Esperto. The menu says it’s from France. It’s not. It’s a second label for the best producer (Livio Felluga) in the best region in northern Italy (Friuli).

We thought it was a fine wine—crisp, with melons and pears in the nose—until co-owner Wes Zane stopped by the table on his way out. He slipped us a taste of another Italian white, also from the north of Italy, a trebbiano (that’s the grape) from Lugana (that’s the place). Trebbiano has adapted itself to the clay soils of Lugana since the 16th century, creating a wine of incredible intensity and harmony. I immediately ordered a whole glass, even though it cost $17.60.

A good thing, too, because next out of the kitchen was an eggplant Napoleon: a stack of grilled vegetables, with a dollop of caramelized onions adding sweetness and depth. It was a dish that would make you happy to be vegetarian.

We weren’t being strictly vegetarian, because I’d ordered the Kobe beef burger. As it is on most menus, this was “Kobe” beef raised in America. It’s from cows crossbred with Japanese Wagyu cattle—good, but hardly the same thing.

In a world of flattened, preformed burger patties, Formaggio’s Wagyu burger is immense, served on a bed of fried rice dotted with cabernet sauce. How come all fried rice doesn’t come with cabernet sauce?

I asked manager Jon Olivas to suggest a red wine. “Black Bart,” he said, a massive bruiser of a Napa syrah, dense, purple, full of tannins and pepper and coffee flavors. A great wine for a heavily marbled steak. Too much wine for a more delicate hamburger. Olivas brought me a taste of Domain Chandon pinot noir instead. Much better.

The evening cost me about $100, probably because my friend had to go early, before dessert. As I was leaving, I ran into two women I knew at the bar, and stayed to have a glass of pinot with them.

They were bemoaning Honolulu’s lack of eligible men. “I’m tired of wasting time interviewing men, which is all dating is,” said one. “I’d rather spend time with my friend Lisa.”

“That’s because we have fun,” said Lisa. “Another glass of wine?”

1115 Bethel St., 545-1115
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards

I love the look of the new Brasserie Du Vin: the brass-trimmed front bar, the faux-French, open-air courtyard in the back. I especially love the antique-looking, but air-conditioned back bar.

However, over several evenings at Du Vin, I’d gotten frustrated with the food—artichokes, asparagus, lots of sharply acidic vinaigrettes, hardly wine-friendly cuisine.

I decided to give it one more try. I called an old friend, who I haven’t seen much since he started a family. “Extricate yourself from domestic duties,” I said. “Let’s have a night out.”

“As soon as we get the kids to sleep,” he said. He was late.

I never wander into Du Vin without knowing someone—and there was a table of congenial souls, grabbing a quick, preconcert supper. When they had to leave, they said, “Hey, finish our food.”

A plate of roasted peppers, not particularly distinguished. There had also been some plump mussels in a buttery white sauce. These had come in an iron pot topped with french fries, but, before leaving, my friends had consumed them all. “Just order some more. If they sit too long on top of the mussels, they get soggy, anyway,” said the young paterfamilias, as he took his place at the table.

From mussels and french fries, we went to raw oysters. Then a soupy risotto, rich with scallops, the best thing we were to eat all evening. Finally, an adequate but unimpressive öpakapaka, served on a bed of grilled zucchini and large, tan borlotti beans.

The menu dictated white wines. We were all over Europe—a LaRoche chardonnay from France; an Alsatian pinot gris from Trimbach; a Gewürztra-miner from ZindHumbrecht; a Spanish albariño from MarFredes; a Portuguese Vinho Verde from Famega. (With the seafood, the albariño fared best.)

Curiously, Du Vin has no meat on its menu. To graduate to red wines, we ordered cheese: a creamy Pont L’Eveque; Maytag Blue; and Spain’s answer to Parmesan, Manchego.

In addition to the by-the-glass list, Du Vin sometimes has open bottles in a bucket at the bar. But ask about prices. For instance, the Willamette Valley Adelsheim pinot noir, a wonderful, silken wine, was priced at $22 a glass. Similarly, the Ebenezer shiraz from the Barossa Valley, dense with fruit and spice, yet smooth on the palate—a wine that retails for less than $40 a bottle—was $28 a glass.

Of course, a wine bar can’t sell wine for what a retail store would, because it provides glasses, service, a place to drink. However, the markup at Du Vin is formidable. Trimbach pinot gris is about $17 a bottle retail. It’s $17 a glass at Du Vin.

Our evening at Du Vin ran $250 with tip. Admittedly, it was a long, luxurious evening culminating in cheesecake redolent with cardamom. The dessert went remarkably well with the last of my glass of Ebenezer; my friend capped it off with a Sicilian dessert wine from Donnafugata.

“Ah,” he said. “It’s good to get out of the house.”

Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd.
524-VINO (524-8466)
Wednesday through Sunday
5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Validated parking, major credit cards

Another old friend, another wine bar. I was glad I saved Vino for last. Vino looks expensive, with its tablecloths and a gleaming array of crystal. But the tapas are $7 to $10, and there isn’t a glass of wine on its fascinating list that’s more than $12.50.

For a wine bar, the food is off the charts. Take, for instance, the caprese, usually slices of tomato topped with fresh mozzarella, with a green splash of basil. Someone at Vino said, We can’t serve caprese you can get anywhere else. Instead, the dish here has thick rounds of Bufala mozzarella panko’d and deep-fried, sprinkled with Parmesan, served atop Hau‘ula tomatoes with a balsamic vinaigrette that’s not too acidic to consume with wine. Or try the house ravioli, filled with sausage, baby spinach and ricotta.

You might expect caprese and ravioli. What you wouldn’t expect is the braised pork with five spice, served with Tuscan bean stew suffused with thyme. These deep, rich, braised flavors are perfect with wine.

You can also get items from Hiroshi’s next door—most notably, shrimp cocktail. This arrives in a martini glass, which the waiter inverts onto a salad plate. It’s a collection of deftly fried shrimp, teardrop tomatoes, bell peppers and hearts of palm. Said my friend, “Shoots, it’s a salad. Where’s the cocktail sauce?”

The waiter pointed out the little red squares distributed through the salad. Cocktail sauce Jell-O, with a fierce blast of that familiar flavor.

Another advantage at Vino is the attention of master sommelier Chuck Furuya. He came up during the shrimp cocktail. “What are you drinking with that?” he asked.

A Picpoul de Pinet from Southern France, I said, one of those obscure Mediterranean wines that seem to dominate the menu at Vino. “At last, you’re learning something,” he said. Picpoul—that’s the name of the grape—is a bone-dry white wine that somehow manages to retain all sorts of fruit and floral overtones. Not bad with the shrimp cocktail.

My friend was drinking a flight of three 2-oz. samples, the kind of muscular reds Furuya likes. She was crazy about the il Baldazzini, a ruby-red Italian wine made from a grape hardly anyone has ever heard of, Lagrein. The other two wines in the flight were too rustic and formidable for her: a grenache from the Rhone Valley and a wonderful old-vine Tempranillo from Spain that Furuya described as “soulful.” It seemed soulful enough for me when I drank it up. My friend, however, wanted something softer.

I ordered her the only pinot noir on the glass menu. The waiter told Furuya, Furuya decided the one on the menu wasn’t soft enough and substituted a Santa Maria pinot from Costa de Oro, which, once it settled down in the glass a little, was in fact the right thing.

The evening was only $120 with tip.

“You remember when we used to work together?” asked my friend. “We used to do this all the time, go out, drink, eat. Everyone needs nights like this. It helps you deal with the days.”