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!