Transcendental dining

Delight is in the details at Saigon Bistro

My first foray into Vietnamese cuisine was memorable not for the meal, but for the weather. The evening I visited a run-down storefront Vietnamese restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, it was 15 below zero, and sheets of ice covered the city with a hair-gel luster. And this restaurant's idea of central heating seemed to involve the circulation of steam tufts rising from the soup bowls and teapots dotting the tables. I ate my spring rolls with leather-gloved fingers and dragged my scarf through a bowl of soup floating an assortment of discolored shrimp and mushrooms.

This was at a time when I proudly displayed my curiosity for the gastronomically exotic while traveling through America's heartland. In addition to the meal in Madison, I ate sushi in Omaha (the restaurant had a huge pond in the middle of the dining room filled with koi, leaving me to wonder what kind of garish pigmentation the fish in my hand roll once displayed); Thai food in Wichita; and an organ meat of some kind in Fargo, served up with a side dish developed by the Ore-Ida Foods Corp. I would have enthusiastically eaten a braised Washington Post op-ed page in a demi-glace made from Chevy shortblock engine parts if you told me it was a prized delicacy in Riyadh.

As a result of these varied meals during my travels, I believed myself to be a highly eclectic eater, a culinary sophisticate, a fastidious discriminator of uncommon vittles, and, more often than I care to admit, a frequent visitor to the restroom, as sometimes culinary exotica prepared in the heartland can wreak gastric havoc.

While my first exposure to Vietnamese food didn't send me to the bathroom, it did disappoint me. The food seemed more like bad Chinese without the rich, gelatinous veneers or the little strips of paper telling you that wise men wear clean underwear even if they don't expect to get into accidents. This isn't surprising, because Vietnamese cuisine reflects a strong Chinese influence (the adoption of chop sticks and the wok are just examples) since China has been pestering the Vietnamese for more than a thousand years. Not surprisingly, northern Vietnam exhibits these effects most vividly because of its shared border with China. Here, the use of beef, soy sauce, and black pepper is more prevalent than in the warmer central and southern parts of the country where fish, vegetables, herbs, and fruits are more abundant.

This cuisine shows other influences as well. In southern Vietnam, a pronounced Thai influence emerges through the use of curries, lemon grass, and galanga (a ginger-like root), though Vietnamese curries are less spicy and rich than Thai curries. French colonization beginning in the 16th century and ending in the 20th also left its mark. In Saigon, a mixture of ground shrimp, black pepper, and coriander is still called pate, and the Vietnamese use a soup base similar to the French consomme.

These influences are perceptible--in varying degrees of clarity--in a recently transformed Vietnamese restaurant wedged in a hard-to-find North Dallas strip mall. Formerly Saigon Savor, a Euro-Asian restaurant opened in 1996, Saigon Bistro (even officially, the city decreasingly is referred to as Ho Chi Minh City) is the kind of spot I would have visited enthusiastically and revisited during my exotic heartland culinary tours.

Not that it's a stylish space. The atmosphere, while clean and crisp, includes these oddly sloped vinyl bar chairs in aqua, yellow, and purple with matching pendant chandeliers. The coordination is nice, except it doesn't quite work with the rest of the house, unless they're planning on showing The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert endlessly on the bar TV. The dining room is conservatively assembled with simple tables and contemporary, split-back chairs covered in dark teal fabric. What adds soul to this space of strip mall sterility are paintings by two Vietnamese artists. The works depict scenes of daily Vietnamese life in subdued earth tones splashed with tiny areas of intense color. Created by Saigon resident Bui Suoi Hoa and Dallas resident Da-Thao Dao, the works feature loosely defined images with broad brush strokes and crudely rendered lines.

Saigon Bistro is a strictly Vietnamese restaurant, recast when owner Michael Tieu disengaged himself from the San Francisco Bay Area restaurant business and moved to Dallas to help his family. "They didn't want the public to think of them as the typical Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant," says Tieu, explaining his family's original focus with Saigon Savor. "So they went with the Euro-Asian concept, and I thought it was just too confusing."

Tieu proceeded to overhaul it, revamping the menu, changing the name, re-accessorizing the interior. "The food that we cook is the food you would find in Saigon, which would be Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese and a little bit of French influence," he says.

Tieu's commitment is obvious. One of his first moves was to bring in Los Angeles chef Kathy Truong, who worked in restaurants in that city's Vietnamese community and specializes in seven-course beef, an elaborate, special-occasion meal in Vietnam. Her family boasts three generations of culinary artists including her mother, a distinguished Saigon chef serving the city's French diplomats. It's the seven-course beef dining experience that Tieu believes sets Saigon Bistro apart from other Vietnamese restaurants.

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