If, like chef Minh Bui, you were born in Vietnam, first learned to cook in your family's restaurant in Saigon and opened your own place in New Orleans with lots of dumplings, noodle soups and Asian vegetables, you could, by rights, call it a Vietnamese restaurant. But that's not really what Bui's local restaurants have been about. Like its predecessors, his new Café Minh in Mid-City functions like an upscale French bistro that happens to keep its kitchen stocked through frequent trips to Asian food markets. A lot of his dishes use hot chili sauce or fish sauce, practically the salt and pepper of Vietnamese cooking, but only a few of them call for chopsticks.
Minh learned to cook in Vietnam with his family, but he says he learned to be a professional chef in New Orleans, working at Commander's Palace and Emeril's Restaurant. He first introduced his fusion of French, Creole and Vietnamese cuisine at Lemon Grass, which he opened in 1996 in a storefront next to Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream in Mid-City. He expanded from there with a second and more stylish Lemon Grass downtown in the International House hotel and later opened a third restaurant, called 56 Degrees, in the Whitney Hotel. The first Lemon Grass and 56 Degrees both closed before the storm. The downtown Lemon Grass reopened briefly afterward but Bui says he was never happy running restaurants in hotels and wanted to return to his old neighborhood.
He has taken over the space that housed Michael's Mid-City Grill, which never reopened after the flood. The redesigned space is clean-lined without being stark, with translucent wall panels that suggest sails, plenty of natural light during the day and a fresh feel to the place even at night. The only problem with the room is the lack of any kind of host's station. People basically step from the sidewalk into the dining room and have to hover over someone else's table before being seated or directed to the bar.
The menu is similar to that of Lemon Grass, but in a reversal of the post-Katrina trend, prices have gone down. The downtown Lemon Grass always seemed just a slice too expensive, even for people who eat at nice restaurants all the time, but prices at Café Minh are moderate with plenty of entrees below $20 and some below $15.
Part of the fun of eating here is never being quite sure what will appear when you order something for the first time, even if the brief menu descriptions sound familiar. The smoked salmon appetizer, for instance, was a steaklike cut of fish, served warm and tasting smoky through its inch or so of girth. The broth for an appetizer special of steamed mussels was green with cilantro and had subtle flavors of lemongrass and wasabi.
The calamari has a great sauce balancing hot and sweet, but the round rings of squid were dull. Much better are the shrimp dumplings or the beggar's purses -- a half dozen little dumplings of toothsome dough filled with minced pork and shrimp and served with an array of spicy oils.
The full menu is available during weekday lunches, when the place does a brisk business serving people who look like they're meeting with their accountants or real estate agents. There also is a selection of sandwiches, the most interesting of which is a $14 burger made from Kobe beef and dressed with a crunchy salad of cilantro, raw onion, sweet jicama and mixed greens. The only disappointment was a common one for burgers, even expensive ones: the bun was backyard cookout standard issue.
Vegetarians have a range of options, with nicely stir-fried and elaborately seasoned tofu making several appearances, but Minh's specialty is meat. Korean braised short ribs are redolent of star anise like the broth of a good pho, the meat meltingly tender and fatty like barbecue. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables sounded like uninspired choices but proved much more compelling on the plate than the menu. The potatoes were irresistibly rich and creamy and the shredded zucchini and yellow squash draped over the beef were as tender as noodles.
The lacquered duck is delicious even to look at, with a darkly bronzed skin plumped up lusciously, but it also is intensely salty. A roasted rack of lamb was very good, crusted with seasoning and served with a casserole of three different types of potato, something like a tuber lasagna.
The bouillabaisse is loaded with seafood and rice noodles, but the broth is a little bland. The wonton soup with roasted pork and egg noodles delivered a richer stock. There are five soup entrees identified on the menu, including that bouillabaisse, but another dish that almost qualifies is the seafood pasta. Instead of spaghetti or penne, the shrimp, scallops and crawfish are tossed with thin, flat wheat noodles swimming in a garlic-laden liquid much closer to broth than sauce.
There are some things at Café Minh that are direct imports from the Vietnamese culinary canon. Order coffee and you get the wonderfully dark, strong stuff with condensed milk that is like the sweet tea of Vietnamese cafes. The grilled shrimp salad is nearly identical to the traditional noodle dish known as bun, with a pile of rice noodles, grilled seafood and fish sauce. The summer roll also will be familiar to people who eat at Vietnamese cafes like Pho Tau Bay or Tanh Dinh, the latter of which is run by Minh's in-laws. The casual places do these types of dishes bigger and cheaper, but Café Minh is the place to try them with a glass of German wine or an aunt who doesn't cotton to Gretna strip malls.
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