Vietnamese cuisine has been quietly slinking into the city's culinary consciousness from its fringe-dwelling outposts on Buford Highway and Jonesboro Road in Forest Park. A gastronomic melange of French, Chinese, Cambodian, Indian and even Russian influences, the cooking of Vietnam, at its best, highlights simple yet captivatingly spiced dishes accented with plenty of herbs, salads and raw vegetables. If you're sick of Thai food, Vietnamese might be your next stop on the ethnic express.
Viet Chateau's menu is relatively small and user-friendly, if a bit tame. Someone at the table should order an avocado shake ($2.50) right off the bat, so everyone can have a sip. It's avocado blended with sweetened condensed milk and ice, and it's surprisingly addictive. A similar concoction made with jackfruit (a tropical melon) is sweet and better saved for the meal's end ($2.50).
A rice flour crepe, as yellow as a sunflower and stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, is a great starter for sharing, though it's large enough for a small meal ($6.50). Cha gio (two for $3), the Vietnamese take on fried spring rolls, is stuffed with a pork mixture that has a pleasantly gamy flavor. It's a more flavorful bang for your buck than you'd expect, especially dipped into nuoc nam, the clear fish sauce condiment that, along with its cousin, the sweeter and spicier nuoc cham, is an integral part of this cuisine.
If you're in the mood for shrimp, go for the fresh and crunchy summer rolls (two for $3), with the little pink critters arranged under the translucent rice paper wrap. Unless you like the crunch of unshelled shrimp tails, though, avoid the odd and oily shrimp cakes ($4.95).
Pho, the well-known rice noodle soup packed with meats and fresh veggies, is faithfully rendered. The secret is in the fragrant, subtly spiced broth, not too redolent with star anise or cinnamon, but tingly enough on the tongue to let you know this elixir isn't a bouillon cube rush job. Try pho tai chin, with the round steak and brisket ($6 for large), and don't be alarmed at how rare the steak is: The near-boiling broth will cook it through in seconds. Be sure to squeeze a wedge of lime into the broth, and to toss in a few leaves of Thai basil.
I'm not as enamored with the dishes under the heading of "vermicelli." Known as bun and typically served in a big bowl akin to pho, the clump of noodles in question is served tepid and plain next to lemongrass shrimp ($6.50) or grilled pork ($8.75). Try as you might to dress the vermicelli up with roasted peanuts and nuac nam, they just taste naked. The restaurant should consider rescuing the tasty grilled shrimp paste molded on sugar cane ($9.95) from its purgatory in this section of the menu and offer it as an appetizer sans noodle rigamarole.
And what's up with the lemongrass chicken in caramel sauce ($9.75)? Typically, the sauce is simply a light, sweet sheen to gently accentuate the other flavors in the meat. This rendition more resembles my youthful conception of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River from Rudyard Kipling's "The Elephant's Child." The meat is overcooked and drenched in oil.
Much better are the rolls of cabbage leaves stuffed with well-seasoned pork and served in a pale, zesty tomato sauce ($8.75). Cornish hen with mushrooms in wine sauce ($10.75) is an obvious nod to France and perfect for the one fussy friend in the group who's too scared to branch out in new culinary directions.
In vegetarian-friendly Decatur, I'd expect a bit more in the non-meat department. Sad to say, there are only three veggie items on the menu: a moderately bland tofu stir-fry ($6.95); a genuinely bland soup with snow peas, mushrooms and tofu; and a colossally bland salad of tomatoes, cucumber and egg ($2.25).
Dessert specials change weekly, and this is where things get exotic -- too exotic for most Western tastes, I fear. Consider this creation: Chalky mung beans suspended in a slightly salty, clear gelatin topped off with a drizzle of coconut milk ($1.25). Sound appetizing? Didn't think so. Hold out for a visit when the bananas flambeed in cognac ($2.95) are offered, or order a scoop of homemade mango ice cream ($2.29).
Viet Chateau has only been open a couple months, but the diverse Decatur crowd (families with young kids, gay couples, Agnes Scott students) has already made it a popular destination. Generation Y servers are sweet and helpful and, as the sunny days return to Atlanta, it's a pleasure to sit in this heartening spot and watch the world reawaken from winter.
But I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that Viet Chateau's menu isn't yet set in stone: There's a lot more to Vietnamese cuisine than this restaurant explores. Here's hoping that -- mung bean desserts aside -- the kitchen finds a more pioneering and adventurous spirit. We're ready for it.
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