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Transcendental dining

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.

The ritual opens with a "bed of paradise," a salad of lettuce, cabbage, fried scallions, and strips of gray, unremarkable beef varnished with a light, sweet dressing. Though good, the creation was certainly not a standout. This was followed by soup: a clear beef broth holding small wads of ground beef, rice, and bits of onion and herbs. Showcasing subtle flavor meldings, the soup had a lemon-grass zip.

Beef vinegar fondue was the next entrant in this seven-stage meal. It's an interactive dish in which the diner submerges strips of thinly sliced beef in a pot of boiling vinegar roiling with slices of onion. After the sizzling beef is removed from the vinegar, the diner lays it out on soft, near-translucent rice paper, supplementing it with cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, bean sprouts, opal basil, sweet basil, and cilantro. A dipping sauce of anchovy, pineapple, chilies, and sugar finishes off the roll, which turns out fresh, crunchy, and chewy with a racy herbal-vinegar punch.

Just as the tortilla is in Mexican food, rice paper is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Saigon Bistro imports rice paper directly from Saigon, where it is prepared in the traditional manner by combining rice, water, and salt and rolling the mixture into thin rounds before drying it on bamboo mats in the sun.

But the most satisfying chapters in the seven-course meal were the rice-paperless beef dishes. "Beef festive," strips of grilled, tender meat swaddled in la lot, a perfumy-sweet tropical herb with a subtle licorice essence, was almost narcotic. Beef sa te, grilled rolls of beef with an inner layer of bacon embracing a core of pickled onions and ginger, and the beef pagolac, steak cubes sauteed with garlic onions and red wine, were juicy and ripe with meaty richness. Plus, the beef meat balls--steamed ground beef pocked with fresh peas and served with crispy, chewy rice crackers--were light, supple and satisfying.

One of my companions remarked that the seven courses made an extremely cumbersome, tedious meal requiring far too much tabletop busywork. But somehow, there's a metaphor at work here concerning mindfulness. The process forces a certain paying of attention, a ritualistic ordering of the ordinary (eating), a transcendent stepping from the frivolity of swift, mechanized dining to a revitalized act refreshed with meaningful deliberateness.

The bonfire dishes carried these sacramental leanings further. Sections of beef, shrimp, and calamari marinated in a soy, sesame, garlic, lemon grass, chili, and sugar sauce are delivered to the table on a plate, along with a vented aluminum dome cluttered with slices of onion and charged with Sterno flames. The flesh is spread over the "bonfire" rendering generously flavored slices of succulent meat--if careful attention is paid to the bonfire process, that is.

Just as Saigon Bistro gently forces heightened attentiveness among diners, it exhibits a consistently disciplined focus on details across the entire menu. Spring rolls, light and airy with a core of lacy rice noodles, tender chicken (shrimp, crab, and vegetarian are the other choices), and lettuce sheathed in a disk of translucent rice paper were crisp and provocative. A Vietnamese peanut sauce--fashioned from ground peanuts, sweet and spicy Chinese hoisin sauce, broth, garlic, shallots, sugar, and red chilies with a crown of julienne pickled carrots and coarsely chopped peanuts--displayed a far more articulate set of balanced flavors than traditional Thai peanut sauce, which seems muddled by comparison.

This attention doesn't slip when the food is more simple. Saigon Bistro's spinach soup, modeled on a Chinese mustard green soup, was developed after diners requested a Vietnamese vegetarian soup. It starts with a vegetable broth seasoned with ginger, onions, and cilantro. To this, wilted spinach leaves and tofu cubes--browned and oven-baked--are added. The tofu oven-baking process causes the cubes to rise, creating spongy air channels in the curd. This sturdy, tender crouton-like garnish absorbs the subtle broth flavors, adding simple contrasting textures that blend thoroughly with the soup.

Among the most successful entrees on the menu was the Cantonese steamed fish, a chunk of succulent sea bass settled in a bowl over a bed of mushrooms and glass noodles. Seasoned with a ginger soy sauce, this flaky fish was richly flavored, yet delicately textured--though the portion seemed stingy.

While the wine list could also be deemed stingy, Saigon Bistro actually has a tightly focused selection tailored to the prickly vagaries of Asian food. The list offers a half-dozen California cabernets and merlots along with other reds such as Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant and the Rosemount Shiraz Diamond from Australia. But be careful: Pairing reds with Asian food is tricky, as the food's distinctive flavorings tend to strip and flatten out even the most distinguished red wines (though the Shiraz would perhaps couple nicely with the seven-course beef). Better to experiment with the handful of roses, the Alsatian riesling or gewurztraminer, or the six California chardonnays and sauvignon blancs.  

The only sourness in the Saigon Bistro experience was the service: It can be painfully slow and cumbersome. On our first visit to the near-empty dining room, 12 minutes passed before a server visited our table. A request for water was fulfilled in three separate installments, as if our server wasn't yet versed in the use of trays. In another instance, a server forcefully challenged my companion's by-the-glass wine selection, pressing her to switch to another varietal. Her choice had to be confirmed with a firm voice.

These proved to be minor blemishes, however, as the service quickly turned gracious, efficient, and helpful. And that's good because there's precious little else here that could detract from an optimal dining experience. The attention to culinary detail coupled with an exquisite sense of balance and taste often yields remarkable results. Saigon Bistro is not only among the top Asian restaurants in the metroplex--it's among the best restaurants in Dallas.

Saigon Bistro. 17390 Preston Road, Suite 490, southeastern corner of Preston Trails shopping center; (972) 380-2766. Open for lunch, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. nightly.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Saigon Bistro:
Saigon spring roll $2.75
Spinach soup $3.75
Seven-course beef sampler $11.95/person
Bonfire combination $12.95
Cantonese steamed fish $12.95


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