|

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.