Lost in Translation
Like a lot of baby boomers who came of age during the 1970s, my only connection to Vietnam was through the TV coverage of a long military conflict that raised the hackles of everyone I knew. I later realized that I wasn’t alone in my lack of knowledge and understanding about the embattled country. America’s most legendary food writer, the late Craig Claiborne, wrote that until the war in Vietnam, he had “only the vaguest notion where the nation existed. Somewhere in the direction of China and Thailand….”
It wasn’t until Claiborne dined in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris that he experienced “one of the most captivating food experiences of [his] life.”
Claiborne would later write a foreword to Nicole Routhier’s The Foods of Vietnam, one of the best introductions to the remarkable, distinctive cuisine of a country influenced by the cooking traditions of China, India, the Netherlands and France. Routhier compared Vietnamese cooking to Thai cuisine, noting that both use fish sauce, shrimp paste, lemongrass, mint, basil, fiery chili peppers and curry. But, she wrote, “a spicy Vietnamese dish will be generally less intense than a Thai dish.”
In fact, a certain lack of culinary intensity may throw off first-time visitors to Sung Son Vietnamese Bistro, which opened two months ago in Westport.
That’s partly because Vietnamese-born Sung Son and his wife, Ling, have given their new restaurant a startlingly bold design: heavy glass-and-metal doors swing open to reveal two dining rooms as spartanly stylish as art galleries. There’s art, too — large canvases painted in vivid colors run the gamut of subjects: beautiful women, lush bamboo forests, damp cobblestone streets. The floors are concrete, and the walls in the first dining room are rough-textured concrete splashed with uneven strokes of yellow and mahogany — “As weathered as an ancient alley in Morocco,” my friend Joe noted. To soften the hard surfaces, panels of sheer ivory gauze float between the tables in this room, and nutmeg-colored, fabric-covered acoustic panels hang from the ceiling.
The place has been designed with a lot of drama and couldn’t be more different from Son’s earlier restaurant, the grim China Feast on Linwood Boulevard (now closed so a Subway sandwich joint can move in). In fact, no other restaurant serving this kind of fare has the sophistication of Son’s namesake establishment. With his new place, the 33-year-old Son is clearly aiming for an upscale clientele.
But the elegant style — like the food and the service — is a jumble of contradictions. It’s all very sleek and shiny: saffron-yellow walls, cobalt-blue light fixtures, heavy leatherette menus. The servers are beautiful and personable young women, but the place is woefully understaffed. Plates pile up on the tables, glasses remain unfilled and simple requests — a serving spoon for a tureen of soup, an extra plate, a question about the ingredients in a certain dish — are often ignored.
Things seem to be getting lost in translation, and it’s frustrating not to be able to make a connection, if only to understand the description of a “feather fish,” the main ingredient in the spicy canh chua ca thac lac soup.
“It’s from the river,” said the waitress, smiling angelically.
“From the Missouri River or the Feather River Hatchery in California?” I asked, only half-kidding.
The server nodded and hurried off. I took a sip of what was supposed to be fresh-squeezed lemonade, though it didn’t have a molecule of pulp and tasted as if it had been made with powder. My friend Carol would have liked a glass of wine, but the place doesn’t have a liquor license yet. Carol shrugged at that news, dipped a Vietnamese spring roll into a tiny bowl of creamy peanut sauce and said, “Well, at least the place looks great.”
The food does, too. Both the spring rolls and pork rolls are plump, chewy pillows of rubbery rice paper wrapped around rice vermicelli and cilantro. The spring rolls come stocked with pink shrimp and thinly sliced pork; the others feature fiery, red, roasted pork. The familiar Vietnamese combination of fried sweet-potato sticks and shrimp, banh tom chien, is called “crispy shrimp pastry” on Son’s menu. The name conjures something quite different from the actual dish. The potato sticks and crustaceans are encased in a shell of crunchy tempura batter and served with a bowl of that sugary-tart, amber dipping sauce nuoc cham, made with a dollop of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies and vinegar. Our “boneless” barbecued ribs, swimming in a burgundy-colored, slightly caramelized sauce, weren’t necessarily bony, but we nibbled around plenty of chewy cartilage.
On the night I dined with Carol, we shared a thick slab of steamed salmon smothered in a ruby sauce of stewed tomatoes, garlic, fish sauce, peppers and cilantro, and one of the bun dishes, in this case a hefty bowl of rice vermicelli heaped with beef sautéed in lemongrass, fresh cilantro, bean sprouts, pickled carrots and daikon, and crushed peanuts. Both were tasty, though we preferred the beef dish, bun bo nuong, because we could spice it up with a splash of nuoc cham.
In fact, the main criticism I’d heard about Sung Son was that the food was unexpectedly bland. My second meal there proved that to be true of two house specialties. A sautéed flank steak served with fried potatoes and tomatoes should be familiar to Midwestern palates. Maybe that’s why it was exceedingly boring, in spite of the accompanying bowl of a mildly spiced pineapple soup. We also ordered the lau do bien, a hot pot stuffed with meats and vegetables. It arrived in a ring-shaped aluminum bowl that had a flaming burner in its hollow core. Though it was chockful of wonderful things — crispy white cabbage, chopped meatballs, paper-thin slices of chicken and pork, carrots and mushrooms in a comforting, slightly gingery broth — it definitely needed a kick. Where was the chili sauce? The nuoc cham?
That night, I was dining with Jim and Joe, and we all agreed, with some regret, that the best choice among the dishes we had ordered to share was the orange chicken, a traditional Chinese-American innovation. Here the bird was plump and moist under a sugar-lacquered crust flavored with sweetened orange peel and chili sauce — it had a fiery punch and, unlike the flank steak, hadn’t been cooked into submission.
I looked forward to ending the meal with a cup of intensely strong French coffee, but it tasted more like the teeth-grinding instant java one makes in a hotel room. It was potent, though — I was wide awake for the next nine hours. Far less interesting was the tiny dessert list. Sung Son sticks to the traditional bean- and nut-based sweets, such as a confection called “Rainbow Ice,” which caught Jim’s fancy until he read the menu’s description: “red beans, yellow beans and gelatin.”
“I’m not sure it sounds very good, but I’m willing to try it if you are,” Jim said.
I wasn’t. I thought of the photos of the more luscious sweets I had seen in Routhier’s cookbook: fried, stuffed bananas; coconut flan; rice dumplings in ginger syrup. Where were they? Now that I’ve discovered Vietnam, I want to taste it all.