Now Quán Nem Ngon, opened in April, takes a big step in the direction of a graceful ambience. Though it's probably too large a room to match the feeling of tranquility and good design that glowed at Annam, still, the well-laid tables with generous cloth napkins and metal chopsticks, the six chandeliers, the banquette, the graceful way the food is presented — all lift the heart.
The two times I visited, those in my party were the only guests who weren't Vietnamese or married to a Vietnamese.
Besides Vietnam's famous bánh mì sandwiches, Quán Nem Ngon, which means "delicious small restaurant," offers three ways to order a hefty meal: soups, noodle salads (which have zero in common with our macaroni salads), and protein served with noodles or rice, fried or not.
The baguettes for the bánh mì may not reach French standards (the Vietnamese borrowed their use of the bread from their former colonial overlords), but they are crusty enough. I ordered the sunny-side-up banh mi and the two perfect eggs — is there a more gorgeous color than that of a perfectly done egg yolk? — arrived with crisp, lacy edges. This is the simplest sandwich, with just soy sauce and lots of cilantro, and hoisin sauce added some sweet saltiness.
My friend asked for the pork meatball bánh mì and and found the meat mildly spiced. It's served on an oval wood platter — more good design — in a sizzling black frying pan, thoughtfully potholdered. Other very reasonably priced sandwiches are pork and fish cakes.
The other signature Vietnamese dish is of course pho, beef soup. Quán Nem Ngon branches out to offer shrimp and chicken versions, which, my online research tells me, is a departure more typical of cooks in southern Vietnam; northerners are more conservative. The "house special" pho uses oxtail — even better than the usual beef tendon — as well as tenderloin and brisket. That makes for lots of fat and a silky texture. Two of the other beef soups boast a red wine broth. Highly recommended.
As is duck soup (find it in the Bistro Specialties column). The braised duck is a whole leg, a challenge to cut up in the bowl, cooked with smoky shiitakes, cabbage, and substantial egg noodles. The dark, rich broth is almost sweet.
"Noodle salads" means hot meat or seafood over warm angel-hair rice noodles, with cool veggies arranged along the side of the bowl, garnished with mint. You pour on lime-garlic fish sauce (or substitute soy) and mix it all together for the best effect. The chef was generous with the excellent smoky grilled pork in my salad, making it feel like a dish designed for Western meat appetites rather than for citizens of a poor country.
Salmon, shrimp, tilapia, and lemongrass-flavored steak are treated similarly. The flavorful tilapia was served in a skillet with wonderful thick, crunchy scallions.
"Rice entrées" here really means meat or seafood served atop rice; the protein is the star, not the rice. The pork dish was two chewy chops, perhaps marinated in something sweet, and served with one of those impeccable fried eggs.
There are also three fried-rice dishes, for those more familiar with American-Chinese cuisine and wanting to stick close to that. I'm told it's made with eggs and vegetables mixed in, more or less in the Chinese fashion, but, since the mostly true generalization is that Vietnamese food is more delicate than Chinese, I'm betting that these dishes would find a way to lift the genre.
Quán Nem Ngon's biggest weakness is lack of a liquor license. In lieu of that, there's fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, Vietnamese iced cappuccino, and che ba mau ("three colors"), made with kidney beans, chickpeas, yellow mung beans, jelly, and and coconut milk.
The latter is really a dessert, as are the half-dozen smoothies. You can try a taro smoothie or dare to try the dangerous durian, so pungent it's banned from some public areas in Southeast Asia, or stick with reliable avocado, mango, or coconut. Although a huge, thick-solid smoothie was daunting after a sizable meal, we liked the pale-green avocado, blended with sugar and milk and just sweet enough.
The only item at Quán Nem Ngon that I wouldn't order again was a fish-cake appetizer, not bad but probably not as interesting as the other choices: coconut shrimp, shrimp rolls, and spring rolls.
The owners say they have plans to open more restaurants, concentrating on pho. Let's hope they maintain this slightly upscale place, too. — mt