It's hard to get people to accompany you to a restaurant you can't pronounce. My attempts to say Huynh sounded like bad Peter Sellers imitations, so I told my dining companions that I was taking them to a mystery restaurant. Were they okay with Vietnamese?
Wary after a month of holes in the wall, my friends weren't sure they were -- until they spotted the cheery orange light spilling out of the tall storefront windows. This wasn't just Vietnamese, this was fancy Vietnamese.
After listening in vain for the name of the restaurant, one friend finally asked our server to say it for us. "Hoon," he responded, the oo short as in book, the n slightly aspirated. "It's our family name." Three minutes later, I heard the table across the aisle ask him the same question.
We obviously weren't the only patrons trying this five-year-old restaurant for the first time. An inconspicuous pho parlor tucked away on 15th Street and Franklin and formerly only open for lunch, Huynh recently turned itself into a completely different restaurant.
With a little money and a good designer, the owners have made a simply decorated room lush and exciting. Each wall is a flat plane of rich, bright color, hip variations on the southwestern palette. A grid of two-tone wood tables and matching chairs covers the room.
Lunch has long drawn a crowd, but Huynh is now open for dinner as well. The owners offer all the old favorites: beef, chicken, and seafood noodle soups, as well as cold vermicelli dishes and rice plates with grilled meats. They've even kept the containers of chopsticks, forks, and sauce bottles on every table -- except all the utensils are now individually wrapped in paper with the restaurant's name on it.
Chef Kim Huynh has added a large section of more elaborate dinner items to celebrate the renovation, some familiar, many not. The appetizer section lists a fair amount of seafood -- crab, lobster, mussels -- along with a number of salads and, of course, imperial rolls. Huynh's version of the latter were dainty, less meaty versions of the deep-fried chicken, shrimp, crab, mushroom, and vermicelli rolls enclosed in shatteringly crisp rice paper. They were served with pickled carrots and daikon, as well as iceberg lettuce and the sweet and fragrant fish sauce known as nuoc cham. A small complaint: Most classic Vietnamese restaurants use frillier leaf lettuce, so that diners can wrap the pickled vegetables, imperial rolls, and mint leaves inside before dipping the green packet in nuoc cham. Iceberg lettuce was only good for a halfhearted side salad. The same vegetables and nuoc cham accompanied a platter of broiled mussels scattered with roasted peanuts and scallions. This time, we found the crisp, watery lettuce a good complement to the salty, smoky shellfish and sweet-tart sauce.
Though the Huynh family originally came from Hue, they lived in Saigon before immigrating to the United States, and prepare dishes from all over the country. Each entrée comes with a dinner plate on which a mound of rice has been pressed. Diners can choose between regular steamed rice and "special rice," golden from being cooked in chicken stock.
An unfamiliar version of a familiar Southeast Asian dish, beef satay was stir-fried, not skewered and grilled. Meltingly tender slices of meat were coated in a spicy, salty soy-based "barbecue sauce," with scallions and sprigs of mint scattered on top. A small dish of "new homemade sauce," or salty lemon juice, was poured over top for service, adding a quick, sharp note, like a love bite.
Huynh took a novel approach to a Vietnamese standard, catfish in clay pot. Often it comes stewed in a thick, pungent caramel made with fish sauce. The Huynhs instead braised catfish fillets in a lighter sauce sweetened with the clear tropical notes of pineapple and coconut juice. The sole dud of the evening, a vegetarian dish of tofu, roasted peanuts, onions, cellophane noodles, and julienned cloud ear sauced in a lemon-yellow coconut milk curry, lacked only one thing: flavor. The sauce did nothing to the unmarinated tofu.
On my second visit we veered toward the more familiar entrées on the menu, focusing on the grilled meats. First we had to sort out the difference between the meats served with vermicelli in a bowl and those served with vermicelli on a plate, all with lettuce, pickled vegetables, and mint. "The vermicelli on the plate are hot," explained our server. They turned out to be more than a bowl of the classic cold rice-noodle salad tipped onto a flat surface and warmed in the microwave. Instead, a large plate was covered with a thin web of pressed hair-thin rice noodles, and slices of grilled, marinated beef were arrayed on top, the juices soaking into the vermicelli cake. I have eaten similar cakes along with grilled meats, wrapping both in soft rice paper rounds or lettuce leaves and eating them by hand. Here the vermicelli was the main attraction: We pulled off chunks with our chopsticks and rolled them around the beef, then dipped the loose construction in nuoc cham.
Traditional Vietnamese restaurants grill their meats until the flesh is charred, almost crispy, the sugars in the marinade fully caramelized. As with its sautéed dishes, Huynh left the meat tender enough to pull apart with chopsticks. The sole exception were the butterflied chicken thighs we ordered as part of a rice plate (rice, vegetables, nuoc cham). Though marinated in a sesame-soy glaze that permeated to the core, the meat was tougher than normal, as if it were preroasted and then reheated for service.
The entrées were eclipsed by our two appetizers, which confirmed that the chef cooks her best when she is showing off. Lime-inflected nuoc cham dressed a salad of tiny, tender baby lotus roots tossed with poached shrimp and julienned carrots, celery, and onions. A similar dynamic animated the hot and sour soup, on which a fine sheen of chile oil floated. A leaner, sweeter cousin of tom yum, the broth was graced with notes of galangal and lemongrass. It was brimming with shrimp, mushrooms, celery, bean sprouts, tomatoes, julienned cabbage, and pineapple chunks.
The service, led by Kim's brother John, is still a work in progress. Our servers made good recommendations, proved unflaggingly cheerful, and stayed by our table to answer our barrage of questions. However, the two servers on duty hadn't figured out how to split up tasks. The other work in progress is the dessert list. Eschewing even the fried banana, Huynh only offers ice cream.
The Huynh family has learned from the success of other upscale Southeast Asian restaurants like Soi4 and Slanted Door that moderate prices plus high-design interiors and bistro-style service make good food taste even better. At least to cautious Westerners.
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