Monday, February 20, 2006

ISO: Upscale Vietnamese with Herbs

I've been lamenting the fact that I can't take my family out for really good Vietnamese food as their welcome dinner when they come visit me in the US. The emphasis on fresh herbs, copious vegetables, and light vinegared sauces makes Vietnamese food the ideal candidate for a familiar yet exotic meal for my Japanese family. The problems is... all of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants are...hole-in-the-walls.

I love my pho+? shops, Golden Lotus (Oakland), Vung Tau (San Jose), and the now defunct Nha Trang (Oakland). But as much as I love these places, I want a place where we can have white table cloths and champagne to welcome my family for visiting me all the way out in California. I want a restaurant that doesn't look like a chain or a 'family restaurant' as they call the Denny's-type establishments in Japan. I want a menu that is not laminated in cheap plastic and silverware that actually weighs something.

I've tried a number of the so-called Upscale Vietnamese places now - Slanted Door, Bodega Bistro, Saigon City, and most recently, Crustacean. They all have one thing in common - not enough herbs. None of them served food that was memorably bad, although service has been shaky at all four restaurants. Compared to the warm, welcoming service I get at places of comparable prices, these restaurants seem snooty and all together uninterested at how my dining experience is. Most memorably because this happened a few days ago at Crustacean, a Vietnamese host called the Papa Bear simply by his last name when addressing him to his face! No 'Mr', no 'Sir', no nothing. He had the choice of sticking to the American tradition and using the Papa Bear's first name, which would have been more acceptable. Instead, he decided to use the Papa Bear's last name and rather purposefully left out any respectful preface, which was quite rude in my (and the Papa Bear's) book. Even worse, he did not look up from his podium once to look at the Papa Bear! Not even a smile or a 'please have a seat while we set up your table'...

Anyway, I am getting side-tracked. Aside from the hospitality issue, the one major problem I have with all these so-called Upscale Vietnamese restaurants are that they only serve basil and mint in their salads and their 'herb' repertoire. Where are my tiato (shiso-like leaves), those heart-shaped fishy herbs that I have grown to love, and all the other exciting bursts of flavor that are so unique to Vietnamese cuisine?

And why oh why have the menus become 100% English? If I want a banh hoi or a can chua, how can I navigate the menu to find these items when everything is given English names with non-Vietnamese waitstaff who have never had the Vietnamese dish I am trying to order? No, I am not Vietnamese, but I have learned to read my favorite foods in Vietnamese and I want my food to be Vietnamese. And I want champagne and white-table-cloth-service along with my herbs, my nuoc mam, and my many kinds of banh. They really go well together - the Vietnamese food and the champagne. I have it at home all the time. But is there somewhere I can enjoy the combination without producing loads and loads of dishes? Or am I asking for too much?

PS: My appetite is rather dim right now and my culinary interest at an all time low. Maybe that's why my blog has been kind of whiny these days. I promise to get out of my funk tomorrow when I start back on my running routine!


The Papa Bear said...

Ah, thanks for posting about this, The Baby Bear. I think this has been one consistent area of complaints among many Vietnamese people, in general.

Why is it that many of these places are over-priced and serving, in many cases, average food, at best? Why is it that they don't take the time to give their customers the whole deal? For example, if the dish calls for lots of herbs, then by all means, give the diners the variety of herbs that makes the dish such a wonderful dish.

I think this is lazy on the restauranter's part and moreover, they're being quite disrespectful of the customers, who pay good money for the meals. Do they think that the customers are unable to appreciate the authentic flavors? Well, that maybe the case for some diners, but by all means, _teach_ them! I think the restauranteurs should be proud of the Vietnamese heritage and serve authentic Vietnamese food and not "sell out".

I don't mind the higher prices that they charge. There's a time and place for that, certainly. But if they want to charge $400 for a meal that would cost $70 at a good "hole-in-the-wall" place, then they'd better train their staff to behave accordingly. But instead, I and many of the people that I hear from get this spotty service and more often than not, a haughty attitude that's really unbecoming of an establishment that completely depends upon the money of these people that they're serving.

So, here's calling on all diners! If you go to these "upscale" places and they are not serving you what you think you should be getting, please tell them. I would really love to have good and truly upscale Vietnamese restaurants that I can take my friends to, without feeling like I was being ripped off.

Uchipu said...

Can't you BYOB at the "hole in the wall" places?

You can in NY. Especially if they don't serve the type of drink you want.

....bring a Dom Perignon to a $6 Pho place...?

yamo said...

I think Crustacean is overrated. I'd rather pick the original, Thanh Long.

Anonymous said...

The holes-in-the-wall seem to be still the best bet when it comes to vietnamese restaurants - they're more flavorful. I tried Le Colonial on Cosmo place - but i won't trust my tastebuds or comments since i am so easy to please, if a flavor burst out, i scream yummmmm.

Alice said...




Yeh, but, but, but I like the table cloths and the nice silverware over the cracked plates once in a while...


Crustacean was DEFINITELY over-rated... So over-rated that I don't know if I can make it to their sister site either... X(


Le Colonial looks great! Their menu on their website is in Vietnamese! I'll definitely have to try it out. Thanks for the recommendation!