Coming home

No one has as nationalist an attitude about their food as the French, who have always regarded la cuisine as their own national treasure and cultural heritage, as important to maintain as the Louvre. And no one is as unprotective of their culinary heritage as the Americans, who have always been ready to adopt anything new that might jazz up basic meat and potatoes.

In France, I hear, they're starting to teach gastronomic awareness in the schools, trying to combat the influence of Le McDonald's and encouraging French schoolchildren to examine, taste, and understand well-prepared food, passing around perfect baguettes in the classroom so the kids can see how different they are from cheap imitations. The purity of their cuisine, like the purity of their language, is a French passion.

Over here in the polyglot melting pot, anything goes: Pasta, sushi, burgers, and stir-fry can all come from the same kitchen. And Japanese ingredients cooked using French technique can wind up being American food.

I guess my personal feeling is that I don't care how pure it is, as long as it tastes good. I love authentic dishes but I also love restaurants, like Anzu, for instance, that have achieved a Yin-Yang balance of Eastern and Western cuisines. And when I first heard that Saigon Savour, a new restaurant in Plano, was planning to serve Euro-Asian cuisine, that is what I imagined: a melding of the two cultures into a single new one. East meets West on my plate.

Actually, though, Saigon Savour is more like East Wind than Anzu. It offers a variety of oriental dishes: Korean, Chinese, kinda, sorta Thai, but mostly Vietnamese. Rather disappointingly, the "Euro" part refers to only a couple entrees--coq au vin and mushroom chicken--a spinach salad with a raspberry vinaigrette, and some French pastries on the dessert selection, all hidden among the other listings as a safe house for those unadventurous diners who feel out of their elements with lemon grass, green papaya, and sugarcane.

From the outside, Saigon Savour looks like yet another culture, neither East nor West, but North. That's right: Plano. Saigon Savour is tucked in a corner of a shopping strip that looks unsurprisingly familiar. In fact, if you go 20 blocks south, in that exact corner of a similar brick shopping center is Chow Thai, backing up my impression that beginning at Addison Road, those strips replicate themselves in identical rows all the way to Oklahoma.

The interior is stark and simple, the neutral, high-ceilinged room set with geometric black chairs; unfortunately, the setting is not entirely pristine, which is really the single quality that can make "stark" a good thing. The single ornament on our table was a glass fishbowl holding blackened ferns and faded flowers in amber water, which the hostess removed at our request. Better bare than compost.

Our myopic waiter seemed less familiar with the menu than we were. When we'd order, he'd peer over at the menu as if he'd never heard of the dish named, and he was unable to answer any questions about the nature of the ingredients. (We asked about the "special aromatic lot leaves" used in the "Hawaiian chicken" and he told us they were a kind of leaf. Out of season.)

We started with a horizontal tasting of the two kinds of spring rolls offered--one named for Singapore, one for Saigon. Both were wrapped in translucent rice paper, Saigon with rice noodles, shrimp, and lettuce, served with peanut sauce, Singapore with carrot threads and tofu as well as julienne jicama, mysteriously listed as "Jamaica root" on the menu. We preferred Singapore to Saigon--the jicama was excellent with the soft rice wrapper--but both kinds of rolls were tepid and lacked the coolness that speaks of absolute freshness.

I could complain that the beer-battered prawns, another appetizer choice, were greasy, except that it would be like grumbling about a rich cheesecake. What did you expect? They tasted good with a cold Tsing-tao. The description here was mysterious, too. According to the menu, these prawns are "lightly battered," then "sprinkled with beer," then fried. It's hard to picture exactly how that would work.

In our mothers' young married days, Swedish meatballs were every new hostess' signature company food, the kind of thing Cher liked to serve on toothpicks in Mermaids. Saigon meatballs might be today's equivalent: little globes of ground pork, skewered and grilled, with more of the exceptionally light, spicy peanut sauce we'd dipped our Saigon rolls into. Skewer those babies on a frill pick and you've got fancy company food.

Green papaya was "in season," if "lot leaves" were not, so we tried that peculiar dish, green papaya salad, chartreuse threads of the fruit making a nest for bits of grayed pork and shrimp, the whole scattered with ground peanuts. Green-pepper soup was as lovely as are most Vietnamese soups (pho). A translucent broth floated with chunks of milky tofu and pinwheels of green chile, it was a bold mix of bland and hot, with nothing to bridge the two sensations but your own mouth.

As entrees, we wanted to do another taste test--this time, comparing "Hawaiian Beef" with "Saigon Savour Beef"--but since, as I said, "lot leaves" were out of season, we had to settle for "Hanoi Savour Pork" instead, and, seemingly, were served more fat little "Saigon meatballs," as well as some strips of grilled pork. The strips of beef were wrapped around bits of onion with more onion and some spinach leaves in the glistening rich brown sauce.

The menu warns that the broiled snapper requires 20 minutes to prepare, but it was the first entree to reach the table. The thick, slightly tough, fillet of fish was very lightly coated with curry, then broiled and topped with a hail storm of peanuts, scallions, and the odd Euro touch of snipped dill, unfortunately dried.

I wouldn't call Saigon Savour's food "Euro-Asian"--basically, this is a Vietnamese restaurant with a few twists--but everything we ate here did have a richness that I don't usually associate with Vietnamese food. So maybe that's the "Euro" influence.

Saigon Savour, 17370 Preston Rd., (Preston Trail Plaza), 380-2766.

Saigon Savour:
Singapore Spring Roll $2.25
Saigon Grilled Meatballs $5.25
Hanoi Savour Pork $9.95
Saigon Savour Beef $11.95
Royal Tiger Prawns $19.



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