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Sunday, Aug. 11, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
It's summer, so lighten up
The Vietnamese know all about hot weather. And one of their ways of dealing with the heat has been to make their food light and appetizing. Using plenty of aromatic herbs, colorful garnishes and condiments that are fragrant yet not overwhelming to the palate, theirs is the most subtle cuisine in all of Southeast Asia.
No doubt that is why it dovetails so well with both the French and Japanese sensibilities. One chef who has recognized this felicitous alignment is Yutaka Ishinabe. Although best known for the altitude of his toque and his TV appearances as an Iron Chef, his media savvy does not in any way detract from his culinary skills. The decor in his two Queen Alice French restaurants may not be to everyone's taste -- he targets a specific demographic (predominantly women of a certain age and spending power) -- but there's no faulting the cuisine.
So it was not surprising that when Ishinabe turned his attention and skills to Vietnamese food, the results were equally successful. After he launched Vietnam Alice three years ago, on the top floor of the Printemps department store in Yurakucho, there were always long lines of people waiting hopefully outside.
There are three reasons why Vietnam Alice was -- and still is -- so popular. To begin with, it was one of the first places in Tokyo to offer the foods of Saigon, Hue and Hanoi in an upmarket setting, as opposed to cheap and cheerful. The entrance has the same cluttered-bower look that characterizes Ishinabe's French restaurants, but the main dining rooms are simple and elegant, with stylish chairs and white tablecloths. This classic look is given a counterbalance by the unusual hill-tribe music that fills the air and the two Vietnamese waitresses who seem to float through the room, their colorful, long aodai flowing gracefully behind them below the waist and tightly fitted above.
Second, Ishinabe has kept all the food elements simple. Instead of attempting some misconstrued haute cuisine version of Vietnamese cooking married to French pretensions, Ishinabe concentrates on the basic foods that are already known and loved here, but renders them with uncommon delicacy and refinement.
And third, Vietnam Alice is affordable. Take the basic (1,500 yen) lunch menu, for example. Once you are installed at your table, you will be brought a complimentary bottle of mineral water. This will be followed by the first course, the "spring roll basket." This is the specialty of the house.
The elaborately fashioned circular tray of fine bamboo covered with dark red lacquer contains a small selection of exquisite dim sum. There are four kinds to choose from, none of them more than a mouthful or two, but each perfectly constructed.
The goi cuon (fresh spring roll) is a classic of the genre. Short and plump, it is stuffed with pink shrimp and morsels of cha shu pork; thin, clear rice noodles; crisp leaves of lettuce, aromatic mint and finely slivered cucumber. The rice-paper wrap is smooth and soft, exactly as it should be (but so often isn't, unless prepared by someone who knows what they're doing).
There are a couple of crisp, crunchy, deep-fried cha gio "cigars" stuffed with pork and shredded vegetables (mostly carrot and black kikurage mushroom). Next to this you will find two banh cuon -- another kind of stuffed dim sum, made with a light rice dough that is steamed until it is almost translucent. The smooth, sensuous dough contrasts with the savory minced beef within and the deep-fried onion bits scattered over the outside.
The centerpiece of the selection is a crab claw, packed with minced pork, then breaded and deep-fried. You pick it up by the pincer and gnaw. It is moist and satisfying; its dense, meaty flavor complemented by the small mounds of lightly pickled vegetables that refresh the palate.
Each of these dim sum are lightly seasoned and can be eaten as is. But for some extra flavor, a small tray of condiments is brought to the table, holding nuoc mam fish sauce, spicy red chili sauce, sweet-savory soy paste (miso) and coriander leaves.
The main course is a choice of either pho bo (rice noodles with beef) or a light curry, probably of chicken. This latter is served on a tray of woven rattan. Unlike Thai curry, which tends to be highly spiced but have a runny sauce, this Vietnamese version is rich and thick, with chunks of chicken, plenty of potato and creamy coconut. The flavor is light and aromatic rather than chili-hot. The rice is served in a separate small bowl, topped with a couple of thin slices of baguette -- a nod to the ubiquitous French bread found throughout Vietnam.
Dessert is a whole frozen mangosteen, already sliced: You pick out the tiny individual segments like small white perfumed jewels.
The 2,500 yen lunch course is more elaborate. It features a salad; the same spring roll basket; noodles; and a dessert plate with a selection of four different delicacies, including an excellent version of annin-dofu, creamy coconut-flavored blancmange-like curds that are only lightly sweetened.
You can round off a highly pleasurable hour or so with Vietnamese coffee -- brewed through one of those stainless steel filters that sit snugly on top of your glass. It takes time, up to five minutes, for the bitter, black coffee to drip down onto the layer of thick, white concentrated milk. But taking things slowly is another of the ways in which the people of Vietnam deal with the midsummer heat. It's a strategy that works just as effectively in Ginza as it does in Saigon.
Because of the immediate and enduring popularity of Vietnam Alice, a sister branch was opened a year or so ago in the Bellevue Building right above Akasaka Mitsuke Station. Larger and airier in feel than the Ginza restaurant, the look is classic neocolonial, with wooden floors, bamboo furniture and strategically draped cream-colored calico fabrics. The menu is slightly wider, with a greater variety of a la carte options.
At this Akasaka branch, you are more likely to find men dining, sometimes unaccompanied, whereas the clientele in Ginza is virtually all female. Nonetheless, on balance we prefer the branch in Printemps. This is not just due to the sweet attentions of those Vietnamese waitresses, but also the impression that slightly more attention to detail is given to both the food and the customer.