Kitchen: S.E. Asian fare with a personal touch

by Robbie Swinnerton

Unlikely as it may seem, there’s a vegetable boom sweeping the nation. And no food dovetails better with this new healthy ethos than Vietnamese — at least the way it is eaten in its homeland.

Chef Masumi Suzuki was so inspired by the mounds of freshly picked salad greens and aromatic herbs that are such a part of the daily diet in Vietnam that she stayed there and learned the local cuisine. The results of her studies now comprise the menu at Kitchen, her homely second-floor restaurant in Nishi-Azabu.

The look is as sweetly unassuming as the name — plain wooden tables, pastel-colored walls decorated with cute illustrations, knickknacks from her sojourn in Indochina and a menu that folds up to look like a peasant’s straw hat. The staff, like 99 percent of the clientele, is young, female and casually dressed. Suzuki herself remains out of sight, single-handedly preparing all the dishes that flow from her eponymous kitchen, imbuing it all with a delightfully subtle touch.

Naturally, we started with some of her fresh spring rolls. She prepares them two ways: wrapped in rice paper as usual; or rolled up in lettuce leaves. Both are excellent, stuffed full of the freshest shrimp, sliced pork and crisp greens. She also makes what she calls mushi harumaki — small saucers of batter, steamed till they set and then topped with minced meat, chopped scallions and tiny, crunchy croutons. Slide out, roll up and munch down. Utterly delectable.

Vietnamese food is made for snacking, and the temptation here is to order everything, especially when it tastes this good. We ordered the Hue-style fried spring rolls, with lighter, crunchier coatings rather than the regular kind. Next, banh xeo pancakes as crisp as papadums, folded over cooked bean sprouts and shrimp. And then delicate deep-fried chicken wings (tebasaki), coated in a marinade of nuoc mam fish sauce, lemon juice and just a hint of chili.

Each of these arrives with a generous heap of green vegetables, all organically grown and glisteningly fresh. Lettuce, cucumber, scallions, lots of coriander, and shiso leaves in place of the mint you’d be served in Vietnam — these are not just garnish, they are integral to the balance of the dishes and your digestion.

Only curmudgeons would think this monotonous: It’s a welcome change from most other Vietnamese joints in Tokyo, where they seem to ration the greens as if they were endangered species.

The house wine is a very decent Burgundy. But Halida beer, from Hanoi, is a tasteless lager; and the Vietnamese firewater distilled from sticky rice is best avoided. To round off our meal, we had a very satisfying rice bowl topped with savory minced pork, ground peanuts and fine-chopped vegetables. And we closed dinner with a small bowl of classic custard pudding and traditional Vietnamese coffee.

From its name, Thai Yum Shokudo in Hiroo sounds little different from any of our ethnic diners that dole out cheerful Bangkok street-stall food of varying authenticity. Walk in the door and you realize it has a style and flavor distinctly its own.

For a start, it looks like a left-field New York cafe crossed with a back-to-basics Koh Samet beach bar. The walls are covered with coarse planks painted plain yellow. The tables are topped with plastic laminate. Over the bar are shelves stocked with cans of lychees, Chinese tea and colorful bottles of nam pla. The opposite wall is decorated with a row of large, glossy color photographs. A ceiling fan turns lazily among the ’60s-retro plastic lampshades. The open kitchen is framed in bright, backlit pop-art panels.

So far so cool. But Thai Yum Shokudo also stands out from the crowd in the food department. For this we can thank chef Thanom and his wife, who between them give the food that extra personal touch you look for in good home-cooking. One of the highlights from this crack husband-and-wife team is the deep-fried chicken, lightly marinated and wrapped in strips of bamboo (on the menu called “Boil Toi” leaf).

Another dish worth crossing town for is the Chiangmai sausage. The slices of coarsely minced aromatic pork are given a good vegetable accompaniment — sliced cucumber and ginger, coriander leaf and cabbage, cashew nuts and devilishly hot dried chilies. The cabbage leaves are not merely to provide healthy roughage: their blandness is the best antidote to attacks of searing chili heat.

Thanom covers all the regular staples — tom yum kung soup, som tam (green papaya) salad, kai yang grilled chicken and the inevitable red and green curries — but he also has some more interesting ideas. Soft-shell crab in a curry sauce; fried pork and cashews; and a very tasty Chinese stir-fry of squid in a tingly sauce with slivers of red and green bell pepper and plenty of real gapao (Thai holy basil) leaf.

What’s not to like here? Just about everything is priced under 1,000 yen; they stock Chang Beer, the best in Thailand; and to keep you happy the young floor crew play infectiously upbeat ska and funk music. This is our sort of place.