I can't help but do the happy restaurant critic jig whenever I hear that a new upscale ethnic eatery is opening in Atlanta. The wager is always a fascinating one: Take a cuisine typically relegated to Buford Highway or strip malls on the edge of civilization and give it a Pygmalion-style makeover. Served on designer plates in a swank setting, unfamiliar flavors become accessible. Intown crowds can gasp with urbane approval.
The challenge, of course, is to preserve the soul of the cuisine being groomed for high society. If the food strays too far from its original nature, you typically end up with insipid, cross-cultural mush. Tamarind and Kyma (which serve Thai and Greek, respectively) are two shining examples of restaurants whose fare has maintained its sense of adventure and discovery.
Now comes Nam, a fine dining venture into the foreign, temporal world of Vietnamese cooking. An unlikely choice perhaps (I would have guessed we'd see haute couture Indian before Vietnamese), but Alex and Chris Kinjo have the creds to pull it off. They're the wonder brothers behind the sexy MF Sushi Bar on Ponce, and they've enlisted the help of their mother, Anh Hoang, to bring an eye of accuracy to the kitchen.
Though I've seen "Magic Fingers" Chris show up in a suit to work the room a time or two, Nam is really Alex Kinjo's baby. With his shoulder-length, frosty blond hair and his dark, form-fitting designer suits, he looks like a bad guy in a Jackie Chan flick. When he's not roving the dining room, he's sitting in a corner behind a silver laptop. What's he studying on the hidden screen? The imagination reels.
Behind his hip, chunky black glasses, though, I suspect Kinjo to be a true sensualist. As with MF Sushi, he has loaned his novel, libidinous touch to the decor (the space looks nothing like its former inhabitant, Zoe's Mediterranean Grill). An unearthly red emanates from the ceiling, creating a moody, soft-porn glow in the evening. Kinjo's own drawings of longhaired beauties might look like the art you'd find in a Happy Endings massage parlor if they didn't mirror Nam's graceful female servers, who drift through the room in silvery robes. A scarlet anthurium stands erect at each table, obviously happy to see you.
Work your way into the menu by perusing the appetizers on the left side. Lots of dishes have been given recognizable names -- crepe, tamale, rice cakes -- to ease you into the unfamiliar. The rectangular tamales turn out to be made from rice flour, flecked with bits of pork, shrimp and mushroom. You unwrap them from their banana leaf casings and spatter them with nuoc cham, a clear, balanced sauce that includes chiles, garlic, ginger and lime juice.
The crepe arrives at the table looking like a folded omelet. It's stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and scallions. A server will lean in and explain the technique for eating it: Hack off pieces of the crepe, place it on a lettuce leaf, splash with nuoc cham, roll it up and have at it. It's a study of contrasts: the soft warmth of the crepe with the crisp coolness of the lettuce. Piping hot, crunchy Imperial rolls, made with sheer rice paper wrappers, are eaten the same way.
Next, pick up your chopsticks and dig into a refreshing salad. Lithe strands of green mango rest in a clear, mild dressing topped with grilled shrimp and mint leaves. It's my new favorite lunch dish. Green papaya is likewise shredded but has a cottony texture and is paired with chewy beef jerky and more mint leaves. Stick with the mango.
I find myself most deeply satisfied by the seafood selections at Nam. Grilled whole fish, pompano on the day I try it, is a subtle pleasure, sparked with onions and chiles and perfumed with a ginger sauce. Steamed striped bass is a dazzling drama in three acts: The custardy fish is wrapped inside a banana leaf, stuffed inside opo squash (a distant relative of cucumber). The filets themselves encase a mixture of pork, mushrooms and chive-like lily flowers. "Pour the sauce generously over the fish," Alex Kinjo directs as he walks by. "It brings out all the flavors."
That's not to say there isn't plenty to hold interest among meatier offerings. Lemongrass chicken is encrusted with an intense, palate-pleasing mince of piquant aromatics. Claypot chicken hums with overtones of salty, sweet and smoky. You'll find yourself picking every last piece out of the caramelized sauce.
Luscious cubes of "shaking" filet mignon, tossed briskly in the wok with garlic and onions, are blissfully tender. Thinking about ordering the prized Kobe beef that gets the same shake-up treatment as the filet? Danger, Will Robinson! I noticed the dish was labeled "market price" but didn't think to ask the cost. Neither did our server volunteer that info. Then comes the bill. How much for these silky chunks of meat? Sixty-five smackeroonies. Six. Five. Did your wallet just let out a blood-curdling scream? Mine sure did. Ask the price, gang. (In all fairness, I should tell you that most entrees are under $20).
I left the restaurant peeved that night, but it didn't stop me from returning. In the two-plus months since Nam has been open, the food has improved with each visit. Sometimes courses take a while to emerge from the kitchen, and I wish they'd offer a little something for desserts. Overall, though, it's a treat to have a new spot in Midtown that cooks to its own distinctive inner tune. This is one gamble that's paying off handsomely.
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