It’s getting to be that time of year when it feels as if this part of Japan has been towed down to Southeast Asia and temporarily moored somewhere in the Mekong Delta. If only that were so. For us it’s not the muggy weather and tropical downpours that we complain about — it’s the dearth of creative, well-prepared Vietnamese food in this city.
That is why we had such high hopes when Cyclo opened a couple of months ago. All the omens looked favorable: a head chef who has paid his dues in Vietnam; a good, central location; and a stylish self-confidence that promises far more than just another Tokyo take on “ethnic” dining.
The premises certainly look the part, blending design motifs from colonial Indochina with a sense of contemporary chic. The main dining room is wide and spacious, with walls in a pastel beige wash and subtle lighting that illuminates the tables not the diners’ faces. Two small private chambers are fitted out with Chinese-style circular tables. Larger parties convene in a modern space with a glass front that is opened in good weather. The furniture is fashionably uncomfortable — apart from the two low tables set with retro-look padded armchairs.
A waitress dressed in ao dai brings you a complimentary bowl platter of salad greens and herbs, along with a dip that murmurs (but doesn’t reek) of nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce that is the sine qua non of all Vietnamese kitchens. It’s a nice touch, and sets exactly the right tone.
The fresh spring rolls (goi cuon) are plump and tasty, contain morsels of shrimp and pork, and are served with a choice of three different dips in which to dunk them. The beef salad is also done well — soft tataki-style cuts of braised meat — also served on salad greens, garnished with soft-blanched bean sprouts, ground peanuts and crisp, deep-fried garlic bits.
So far, so good. But the banh xeo “crepes” (called okonomiyaki in Japanese) were a failure. Not only were they too coarse and thick, they were scorched in parts. Worse than that, the obligatory greens served with it were very tired outside leaves (which in most restaurants would not be bought in the first place, let alone served).
Perhaps the problem is that in Japan most greens on the plate are treated as mere garnish, to be ignored and returned uneaten. But anyone who has lived and trained in Vietnam knows that the salad vegetables are integral to the dish, and even the cheapest eateries there serve herbage that is always freshly picked.
We ordered three main dishes between us, but none of them displayed any great subtlety. The ca thien nuoc mam chanh is horse mackerel (aji) — not, as advertised, stir fried but deep fried — drenched in a sweet-savory hoisin-style sauce. Next, dau phong xao ga voi xoai: a Chinese-inspired sweet ‘n’ sour sautee of chicken chunks, morsels of tart mango, straw mushrooms and whole peanuts. Again the starch-thickened clear sauce was applied far too thick.
The chef’s special suon nuong spareribs were acceptable — well seasoned on the outside with a simple marinade of nuoc mam, chili and sugar, rare and chewy on the inside. Here, as throughout the meal, we found the seasonings unbalanced, with the overriding sensation that of cloying sweetness.
Such a monotony of flavors and failure to impart any depth seems strange until you realize that chef Masahiro Uchida learned his stuff in the kitchens of a Saigon tourist hotel (the good old Rex). This is Vietnamese cooking for foreigners, prepared by inexperienced and uninspired young Japanese cooks, for trendy young 25-to-30somethings, few of whom are likely to have heard of Uncle Ho, let alone visited the city named in his honor.
This is one reason why Cyclo is so popular; the other is the prices. The set meals run at 4,500 yen and 6,000 yen, but you could easily graze for half that much (plus whatever you drink).
And there’s no denying it’s a pleasant environment to while away a mellow midsummer evening. There are even a couple of tables outside where you can sip your Bababa (333) beer and inspect the cyclo parked by the front door. Unfortunately, this three-wheeler bicycle taxi is just about the most authentic part of the whole experience. And it’s not going anywhere.
But you’re still looking to be transported (in spirit, anyway) to the fragrant streets of Annam? Nguyen Thi Giang can help you better than anyone. For the past three years she’s been turning out some of the best — and cheapest — Vietnamese cooking in all of Kanto from her compact third-floor restaurant down in Tamagawa.
In almost every way you can conceive of, Giang’s (pronounced “Jang”) is the opposite of Cyclo. It’s homely, simply furnished and staffed entirely by Vietnamese: Giang, her husband and one waitress fresh in from the mother country.
It’s also exceptionally tasty. This is hardly surprising, since Giang is a trained chef, who besides running the kitchen here is also one of our resident experts on Vietnamese cooking. She and her husband are double refugees from the Communist regime: Hanoi-born, they were first exiled to the South, and then forced to escape again by boat a dozen years back.
The history may be harsh, but it does mean Giang knows the foods from every part of her own country. Take her hearty cha gio (deep-fried spring rolls): She prepares them in the northern style, stuffed full of flavorful minced pork, with no need to bulk them out with cellophane noodles. Crisp, meaty and satisfying, you know at once that here you are tasting the real thing.
So also the banh trang re, one of the specialties you are likely to find here only. They are much like cha gio, except formed with a special netlike rice paper. The result is richer, more substantial as it absorbs more oil, and perhaps better suited to more northern latitudes.
Banh xeo are best associated with central Vietnam. But you’d be hard pressed to find such delicate pancakes in Hue. Hers are light, crisp, golden in color and stuffed with a moist filling of bean sprouts, pork and shrimp in a thick sauce of coconut milk and mung bean flour. Needless to say, the lettuce and shiso leaves served with it are absolutely crisp and fresh.
To call Giang’s food authentic is to miss the point. Everything she prepares — from the My Tho-style pho noodles to the thit bo kho beef stew — is a step or two up the ladder of refinement, rather than the kind of down-home street food you’d expect in a mom-and-pop diner like this. From her immaculately scrubbed and gleaming kitchen she turns out dishes that are simple but full of flavor, light enough for the hot weather but always satisfying.
Interestingly, both restaurants have Web sites — that are good reflections of their respective qualities. Cyclo’s site (gnavi.joy.ne.jp/gn/JP/G222004s.htm) is slick, well designed and professional; Giang’s, on the other hand (www3.justnet.ne.jp/~giang), is simple, homemade and entirely rooted in their background as Vietnamese (including a reminder that their homeland may have wonderful food, but the present government has a sorry human-rights record). For both locations, though, you will need a Japanese-capable browser.