Henry Yoon put his financial acumen to work when he partnered with his brother-in-law Jin Hyuk Hong to open Cafe Duck Butt, a humble karaoke bar in the heart of Kakaako, seven years ago. The name attracted the curious at first, but people kept returning for the Korean specialties on the bar menu.
Fast-forward to the present. The pair has opened DB Grill at Kapolei Commons, and the difference between their two establishments is like night and day, an amazing journey from a neighborhood dive bar to a glitzy contemporary restaurant that fits right in with its Ko Olina neighbors.
With proper nurturing, the DB Grill concept could easily go on to take the nation by storm, and if anybody could manage this kind of leap, it’s Yoon, a Harvard finance graduate whose former life was as a derivatives trader who worked in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
When the subprime mortgage crisis roiled financial markets in 2008-09, “it let me take a breather,” he said, “and afterward I had to make a decision: Do I go back to Tokyo or stay here and try something different?’”
Luckily for food lovers, different won.
>> Where: 4450 Kapolei Parkway No. 560
>> Contact: 376-0885
>> Hours: 7 a.m. to midnight Sundays to Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
>> Prices: About $40 for two for lunch and $50 to $60 for two for dinner, without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** — excellent
*** — very good
** — average
* — below average
Those accustomed to the cavelike feel of Duck Butt may be overwhelmed by the openness of DB Grill, with its high ceilings and glass walls that let in light by day.
The DB menu has grown up as well, offering modern American fare with a big nod to its Duck Butt Korean heritage, the new eatery being the restaurant equivalent of the quintessential Hawaii second-generation success story.
Chef Ed Choi Morris has created a menu equal parts pop and polish, sure to appeal to broad tastes. How else to describe a menu that veers from a ramen fried chicken sandwich ($14) to Thai mussels ($23/$16 half-order)? The former is playful and fun, appearing to food snobs as an assault on the senses, but the ramen is crushed to give the crust just enough crunch to know its source, without turning the tender, buttermilk-soaked chicken fillet into a tooth-chipping experience. The mussels are sublime in a lemongrass curry broth with sweet corn, Thai basil, cilantro and tomatoes.
And so it goes. Every item on the menu looks delicious, hence the overload of dishes on each table whenever I’ve visited. It’s not unusual for couples to be picking away at five big plates. Could be that town dwellers, like me, are gorging because we don’t know when we’ll next return to Kapolei.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, but I’d start with kalbi that takes three days of tenderizing and slow-cooking to arrive at a luxurious, tender, melt-in-your-mouth consistency like no other in town.
During the day it arrives complete as Ed’s Signature Kalbi Plate ($22), with a side of duck-fat fried rice and sauteed kim chee, which is fermented three days. In the evening the big-bone marinated short rib is an a la carte option intended to serve two ($30).
The fragrant and moist fried rice is Morris’ take on Hainanese chicken rice, incorporating jasmine rice and chicken stock. The resulting rice is soft and fluffy, with flecks of ginger, scallion and cilantro giving it the flavor of jook.
If you want more intense flavor, there’s also a bacon-kim chee fried rice ($15). Bacon? ’Nuff said.
By day the idea is to get people out quickly enough to get back to work, hence a menu of bowls, salads and sandwiches. Most are $8 to $15 for generous portions. Many appetizers appear day and night, including juicy garlic soy or spicy Korean chicken wings ($12), a kim chee short stack ($12) with four pieces of kim chee jun, blistered shishito peppers ($8) and kim chee fries ($12) that are enough to be a meal in themselves. The fries are topped with kim chee, bulgogi, sour cream, red onions and kochujang as a sort of Korean-American nachos.
Tacos (three for $12) come in a choice of bulgogi, barbecue chicken or pork belly. I found them rather tame, but it was nothing that a douse of Tapatio hot sauce couldn’t fix.
The Duck Butt Signature Chicken ($15) is really a Cornish hen dry-rubbed with seasonings and fried twice to give it its crisp texture. Like many dishes here, it’s served family style with four pieces intended to be shared.
After you’ve tried the kalbi, make room on a return visit for grilled rib-eye steak topped with kim chee butter and a sprinkling of Korean solar salt, flavored with bamboo and pine.
Spicy garlic shrimp ($24) is another must, with its savory chili sauce, bits of crisp garlic and cilantro.
Thirst quenchers include craft cocktails ranging from a soju caipirinha ($7) to a chocolate haupia mojito ($8). Or just pick up a carafe of watermelon, lilikoi, Melona or yogurt soju cocktails ($20 to $30).
My only complaint is that the restaurant is not in the heart of Honolulu, which would make it easier to drop in more frequently. But with expansion plans in mind, Yoon said, “You never know.”
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.