In which we visit Saigon RestaurantFor several years, the only Vietnamese restaurant in town with which I was familiar was the Sizzling Wok at 71st and Michigan. A darling of former NUVO reviewers, and certainly one of my favorite spots in town, this estimable eatery has defined quality and consistency over the past decade or so. Whether the Vietnamese population has increased substantially over the past couple of years, or whether the cuisine has simply become a lot more popular, I"m not sure, but there are now at least four restaurants which feature, either wholly or substantially, cooking from that country. A relative newcomer on the scene, Saigon Restaurant looks set to become a new equal favorite of mine.
There are those culinary purists out there who believe that Vietnamese cooking is little more than a hybrid of Chinese, Indian and French. They may be right, and if that is the case, then this is one heck of a hybrid. Certainly the French influence is clear in dishes that feature pancakes, crËpes, omelets and the like. Even the extensive use of garlic could probably be attributed to the French influence. There is something special, though, about the blending of flavors, such as coconut milk and spiced peanuts, or the ubiquitous presence of fermented fish sauce, that argues strongly for the unique character of Vietnamese cooking. Unlike Thai food, for instance, which is notable for its raw heat and spice, Vietnamese cuisine is mild, subtle and savory. Perhaps that"s the French influence again.
Vietnamese cuisine, on these shores at least, relies in equal parts upon fresh, dried and preserved ingredients to create a wealth of flavors that are often indescribable, but seldom less than fascinating. I'm always impressed by the freshness and crunchiness of this cooking: clean, well-defined tastes and bright colors that rival the finest Chinese cuisine for verve and complexity. Small wonder that there are now more Vietnamese restaurants than Chinese in France, where they know a thing or two about food.
Saigon Restaurant features over 150 menu items, most of them entrÈes, so you could eat here for about six months and not repeat yourself. There are 10 chicken items, 14 vegetarian entrÈes and dozens based on rice, vermicelli and noodles. Although most of the ingredients are familiar from dining at other Vietnamese restaurants in town, the actual recipes differ significantly, illustrating the flexibility and range of this subtle cuisine. You won't find any knockoff ersatz Chinese dishes like general's chicken or beef lo mein here. This is the real deal, so prepare to abandon notions of the tried and tested at the door.
Although the exterior of this fine little establishment is, for want of better words, unprepossessing, the interior is anything but. Not that it represents the apex of modern interior design or anything, merely that it is spotlessly clean, neat and very decently appointed. The restaurant shares an entrance with a large and heavily-stocked grocery store that offers just about every exotic ingredient imaginable, and quite a few that aren't. A serious gastronaut could spend days here with a wad of cash and a phrase book and come away with a completely new perspective on the diversity of food. Faced with such a startling array of dried goods, pickles and other-worldly fruits, I emerged from the place humbly clutching a can of young coconut milk, one of the few comestibles I actually recognized, and proceeded on to the restaurant.
Starting the meal with an all-time favorite, the grilled pork spring roll (two for $2.55), I immediately began to feel at home. This dish, simple as it may be, epitomizes the freshness and delicacy of Vietnamese cooking. Rather than being encased in a fried wonton wrapper, the noodles, finely shredded lettuce, carrots and slivers of pork are wrapped in rice paper that melts away when you bite into it. Served either with plum sauce or traditional fish sauce, this dish is a treat. Keen to try something a little different, my friend and I next ordered the steamed white rice cakes (a dozen or so for $3.95). The rice cakes in question are actually little slippery discs of rice noodle about the size of a half dollar. These are topped with a small mound of dried shrimp paste and fried onion, and are served with nuoc mam on the side. Wonderfully savory, and not at all fishy, this was a delightful and quite filling dish.
Next it was time for pho ($5.25) and fish in a clay pot ($8.75 for a large portion). There are over a dozen pho dishes to choose from here, each one offering a different assortment of meat in varying degrees of doneness. My dish, a simple eye of round and brisket version, sadly lacked "bible tripe," which sounds like a visit from Jehovah's Witnesses, but actually derives from the third stomach of a cow. Our server, doubtless identifying me as a hapless rube, had brought me the safe version of this rich and mysterious dish, in the not altogether inaccurate belief that I wasn"t quite ready for tendon and cartilage. The pho, simple as it might have been, was vast and satisfying, with a light but savory beef broth, ample noodles and plenty of fresh beansprouts and mint for stirring in.
The catfish in a clay pot (actually aluminum, but who"s keeping score?) drew undisguised groans of gastronomic pleasure from my friend and myself. Six or so large chunks of fish had been cooked slowly and lovingly in a rich reduction of garlic, onion, fish sauce, celery and caramel (I think). Catfish lends itself especially well to this dish, as it can be cooked bone-in, yet easily dealt with by diners who might not be accustomed to eating whole fish. For lovers of the rich and savory, this dish is a must.
To finish, we each had a cup of coffee with condensed milk, about as intense a cup of coffee as I"ve ever had. Prepared at the table, the coffee takes about 15 minutes to filter through, so it"s advisable to order in advance. Poured over ice, this is a fabulous summer drink and a great ending to an impeccable meal. Let me conclude by saying this: If this restaurant were downtown, utilized white tablecloths and charged four times as much, I'd still think it was one of the best deals in town.
Saigon Restaurant 3103 Lafayette Road 927-7270
Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Food : 4 stars
Atmosphere : 3 stars
Service : 3 stars