As a general rule, evocative foods tend to come in small packages. Englishmen may wax lyrical about their leaden meat pies, and there are probably a few Texans who grow misty-eyed over the giant beefsteaks of their youth. But the truly Proustian items (Chinese moon cakes, Coney Island hot dogs, oysters from Belon) tend to be bite-size. It’s true in Vietnam, too, where rice-paper rolls are a kind of national madeleine. They’re deep-fried (cha gio) and eaten like bonbons, or rolled cold around grilled shrimp, fresh vermicelli, and sprigs of lettuce and coriander (tom cuon). In the central part of the country, the rice skin tends to be thicker, and the rolls are stuffed with lettuce and strips of barbecued beef marinated in lemongrass and sesame (thit nuong cuon). In the south, you’ll find a similar delicacy, only wrapped around crunchy jícama, specks of shrimp, and slices of sweet Chinese sausage (bo bia). They’re sold fresh on the street, cut in diagonal, candy-size sections small enough to fit in a child’s hand.
I know this not because I’m a globe-trotting gourmand (although I have dined in Vietnam); I know it because I devoured about 30 little bo bias during one of my recent visits to Nam, the fine new Vietnamese restaurant on Reade Street, in TriBeCa. Nam’s managing partner, Steven Duong, is a Saigon native and former co-owner of the restaurant Cyclo, in the East Village. The walls of his new establishment are colored a soothing Mylanta green and decorated, here and there, with poles of illuminated bamboo. Sprouts of wheat grass adorn each table, and the sound system emits a continuous loop of the kind of New Age gong-and-flute music you hear at goofy fusion restaurants farther uptown. There’s nothing New Age or goofy about the cooking, however, which is an elegant mixture of home-style recipes (flavorful noodle soups, grilled pork and vermicelli), street foods (rice-paper rolls), and standard restaurant dishes (crispy red snapper), all orchestrated by three genteel ladies who learned their trade in the kitchens of Saigon.
The eldest of the chefs at Nam, Tiem Pham, speaks no English, which is no handicap, since she and her sister, Hoang Do, and their associate Qui Tram shop each morning for fresh ingredients in the markets of Chinatown. Maybe that’s why the skin on my first batch of lemongrass beef rolls felt warm and sticky, as if it had been made minutes before (it had). The shrimp in my shrimp roll (or “summer roll,” to Stateside diners) was fresh grilled, not boiled, and the contents accompanying it (vermicelli, lettuce, coriander) weren’t stale or over-refrigerated. My green-papaya salad, another dish with a fresh shelf life of about five minutes, was crunchy and pleasingly laced with peanuts, mint, and strips of sweetly cured beef. After that came a small platter of baby back ribs, charred around the edges and tasting of burnt sugar; exotic packets of shrimp-flavored rice paste folded into steamed banana leaves (banh la); and a delicious, slightly curried mélange of sautéed monkfish, peanuts, and water chestnuts (ca bam) served atop a big, pancake-size rice cracker.
Ca bam is a communal dish in the south of Vietnam, a sophisticated cousin to the American nacho. It’s eaten in groups, with glasses of beer, although I scarfed my helping in happy solitude (I was on jury duty), between decorous sips of ginger tea. The noodle and soup dishes were equally fine, although my bowl of pho (rice noodles in oxtail broth) seemed a little watery.
Among entrées, a platter of steamed sea bass was mushy, but the crispy red snapper was perfectly fresh and served without the vulcanized carapace of crust you find in most Southeast Asian restaurants. My favorite poultry dish at Nam was the simple roast chicken (glazed with sesame and chewy bits of crushed garlic), and if you’re partial to bean curd, $4 will buy you a generous square of tofu, lightly crusted with lemongrass and chili. For dessert-loving Yankees, there’s also a dense form of banana bread (bombed with burnt coconut flakes and vanilla ice cream) and, to chase it all down, cups of fierce Vietnamese coffee, spiked with sugar and sweet, creamy deposits of condensed milk.
There’s an approximation of real Vietnamese coffees on the menu at TanDa (although the cappuccino is better), and the first shrimp rolls I spotted were being dismantled by a raucous group of ad executives, using their knives and forks. But then TanDa (it’s the name of a Vietnamese poet and gastronome) doesn’t make any real claims to authenticity. The establishment, which occupies a former OTB parlor on lower Park Avenue, is the brainchild of two of the former owners of Moomba, and the theme they’ve chosen for their new venture is Southeast Asia. Fleets of shrunken tea stools have been installed in the upstairs bar area, and the restaurant is strung with lanterns made from conical Vietnamese fish baskets. The waiters are dressed in darkly iridescent shirts, like bottle flies, and the menu, as composed by executive chef Stanley Wong (formerly of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong), is a festival of sometimes clunky, sometimes tasty fusion foods like Maine lobster doused with carrot and ginger tea (clunky), and pork tenderloin glazed with mung beans (semi-tasty).
Chef Wong’s pupu platter ($25 for two people) features decent-quality spring and rice-paper shrimp rolls, and a variety of esoteric dipping sauces that were difficult to identify in the nightclub gloom. Among appetizers, stick to the noodle soups (a hearty version of pho and a tangy coconut curry broth called Malaysian seafood laksa) and the steamed rice-noodle tian, a multitiered ravioli construct layered with helpings of mashed eggplant and savory braised oxtail.
The entrées mostly feature standard, Western portions of meat, smeared in sweet, somewhat bizarre, occidental sauces. My overdone steak was covered in a liquefied jam substance called “prickly ash berry jus,” and the well-cooked Balinese roasted duck could have done without a sticky reduction made with palm sugar. The desserts were similarly cloying, except for a plate of crumbly, warm chocolate-chip cookies, served with a bowl of coconut milk. Close your eyes when you take a bite of this great American delicacy; at TanDa, it’s as close to Proustian reverie as you’re likely to get.
110 Reade Street; 212-267-1777. Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, seven days, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $4 to $8; entrées, $8 to $18. A.E., M.C., V.
331 Park Avenue South, near 25th Street; 212-253-8400. Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Late-night menu, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. Appetizers, $11 to $13; entrées, $17 to $25. A.E., M.C., V.