New bistro goes with the pho
Pho Van's second location maintains excellent menu
As we hungrily worked our way through a banana blossom salad at the new Pho Van Vietnamese Bistro, a colleague who has visited Vietnam noted how the refreshing and light cuisine is an antidote to much of the country's enveloping hot and humid climate.
This particular dish, Goi Bap Chuoi, seems to embody that observation. A medley of shredded chicken and plump gobs of grapefruit, mint and daikon cradled by a banana blossom petal, the salad is a harmony of sultry flavors gently jazzed by citrus.
The palate- and body-reviving qualities of this appetizer are found throughout Pho Van's menu, making it a smart choice for lunch, when midday energy flags. In fact, we'd eat the dainty salads and spring rolls for breakfast, were that an option.
Vietnam was colonized by both China and France, and its cooking evidences strong influences from both traditions. The Vietnamese, who are the only Southeast Asians to eat with chopsticks, improved upon China's stir-fries and spring rolls. From the French, they borrowed p‰tŽs and pot-au-feu, the basis for the star of Vietnamese-American cuisine Ñ pho, or beef noodle soup.
Pho Van's original location, on Southeast 82nd Avenue, earned a sterling reputation for its aromatic pho, presented in nearly a dozen ways. Where that restaurant offers pho made with tripe, fatty brisket and meatballs, the new, more sophisticated bistro serves just two skinnier versions: a pho made with round steak and lean brisket, and a chicken broth pho with rau ram (Vietnamese coriander).
Other dishes carry over from 82nd to the new bistro. These include the exotic and delicious Chao Tom, a Vietnamese version of p‰tŽ in which finely minced shrimp and chicken are mixed together to form a viscous paste. This persimmon-colored substance then is molded around the ends of sugar-cane stalks and grilled; on the plate, they resemble Paul Bunyan-sized matchsticks. Chao Tom is eaten by tearing off the p‰tŽ and wrapping it in rice paper with vermicelli, lettuce, mint and peanut sauce. The big thrill is the opportunity to gnaw on sugar cane for a jolt of raw sweetness.
Hints of honey punctuate more than a handful of Pho Van's offerings. These include the headlining (and highly recommended) fishes Ñ a lightly battered tilapia fillet with garlic sauce and a snowy, steamed Chilean sea bass Ñ and the caramelized chicken and pork stews served in clay pots. But the sugary flavors are never cloying, and they pair well with hoppy Asian beers such as Tiger and Tsingtao or a glass of Beaujolais.
Still, not all Pho Van creations are as wispy and rewarding as the banana blossom and lotus salads. Purple sweet potato soup, for example, is clunky, bland and difficult to eat. The potato chunks are too large to be handled with chopsticks and unpleasantly doughy besides.
So, for soup, stick to the pho Ñ but don't limit yourself to just that. Pho is probably the most challenging selection on the menu. If you like it, you'll be surprised by the delicate, accessible entrees, which use ingredients common to Thai cooking.
Try the jackfruit (a cousin of the fig) smoothie and an unusual hand roll, follow the suggestions of the friendly servers, soak up the elegant interior with its Vietnamese antiques and artwork, and you might feel an equatorial breeze brush past.