I love Vietnamese food. It is without doubt my favorite cuisine. I like its profuse use of fresh herbs, rice noodles, sauces that are light but intensely flavorful and its grilled meats, which function, healthily, more as a garnish than as a main dish.
My love of this food was cultivated by years of dining at the original Bien Thuy on Buford Highway, as I mentioned in a recent review of the new Mint's Grill. Bien Thuy's owner, Suzanne Bojtchewky, authored at least one cookbook and her decision to return to Vietnam left foodies in the city heartbroken. Bojtchewky would often prepare exotic, off-the-menu dishes that sometimes reflected the influence of France's colonization of the country.
In recent years, Com has taken Bien Thuy's place as the best Vietnamese restaurant in the city. But there's a new contender. I'm talking about Chateau de Saigon (4300 Buford Highway, 404-929-0034), open only a few weeks but already rocking the palates of Atlanta foodies.
There are a few things that make this restaurant different. It's much larger and much more comfortably furnished than the average Vietnamese restaurant. I suspect that has something to do with its ownership. I met one of the owners, a young man named Jimmy, who explained that he was born in America to Vietnamese parents.
Most of the staff seems to have the same heritage. This means you're likely to get a more articulate than usual explanation of dishes on the vast, eight-page menu. The servers are all charming, funny and – my one complaint – if they make even a minor error, they apologize so profusely that you expect them to bring out a pot of rosewater to wash your feet.
Another thing that distinguishes the restaurant is the chef, who grew up with one Vietnamese and one Chinese parent. He speaks both languages and cooks in both styles. So the menu includes a lot of Chinese, as well as Vietnamese dishes. The two are not separated on the menu, so you'll have to interview your server to determine what's what.
Nor am I clear about regions of specialty. Chinese cooking is hugely influential in Vietnamese cuisine – the two are neighbors – but Vietnam has three fairly distinctive culinary regions. In the north, where soy sauce is used profusely, the cooking most resembles China's, while the south's style is spicier, favoring fish sauce (nuoc mam) over soy sauce, along with some sweet notes. The most refined food is from central Vietnam (Bojtchewky's home, I believe), where royalty lived. Of course, besides China, Vietnam also draws on the cooking of Cambodia and Thailand.
I've dined here twice and had nothing but wonderful food. We asked Jimmy to recommend some dishes we likely wouldn't find elsewhere in the city. Our first starter was ground shrimp wrapped in sheets of tofu and fried until crispy and feathery. I've actually had a similar Thai dish and it was, like this one, served with a sweet sauce.
Jimmy also recommended the first appetizer on the menu, rice paper wrapped about strips of pork sausage and a cigarette-sized fried roll, along with lettuce and herbs. Our server informed us that we could actually order the same dish as a roll-your-own entree. We chose the entree but ate it as a starter – be warned that it's a lot of food and a good bit of work.
Jimmy said it's customary for the Vietnamese to sit around a table, eating this dish while drinking. Many non-Vietnamese diners, he said, seem to find it intimidating to use the rice paper, which you must dunk in some water briefly before piling it with herbs, noodles and meat.
We ordered another rice-paper wrap as an entree during our next visit. This one featured lemongrass beef grilled in wild betal leaves.
"Oh," I said to Jimmy, "these are like the 'la lot' at Com."
"No," he corrected me, "I believe they use grape leaves." I said I thought they called them grape leaves, but they were actually betal leaves. Then he said that, in any case, Chateau de Saigon uses only wild betal leaves.
This particular wrap's ingredients also included slices of star fruit and plantains. Both are classic accompaniments but not found much in Atlanta because getting the two fruits at the right level of ripeness is difficult.
We also ordered a starter of shrimp fried in tapioca flakes and a couple of standard Vietnamese entrees. First was shaken beef, a much more generous portion of filet mignon cubes than you'll find at Nam or Mint's Grill. It was cooked with scallions and white onions and served over salad greens. The usual salt and pepper were here combined in a citrus-lime dipping sauce.
I especially love meats cooked in clay pots. My favorite is pork, which is basically caramelized during cooking in fish sauce. As at other places, the pot was brought to the table, along with rice. The pork here is tender and sliced thin. My one complaint: There wasn't as much sauce in the pot as I would have liked to pour over my rice.
We tried only one purely Chinese dish and it was just as good as the Vietnamese dishes. It was flat rice noodles, served wet, with shrimp, scallops and squid. I was reluctant because the menu said it was in a "light brown sauce." As a rule I find brown sauces unappealing, but this one didn't overwhelm the dish, leaving the taste of the seafood intact. The noodles were more appetizing than the seafood. They clumped together but were so tender, they took on the texture of dumplings.
There are dozens of other Chinese noodle dishes, as well as classic Vietnamese bun dishes made with vermicelli and all kinds of toppings.
Is there anything to avoid? Wayne insisted on ordering a durian smoothie. I begged him not to, having encountered the foul-smelling durian fruit in Houston years ago. But he insisted. It arrived looking snowy and innocent – and smelling like rotting flesh. I attempted a sip. The stuff does have an interesting taste but I can't get past the horrible smell and neither could Wayne. You go ahead and try it.
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