Listed without fanfare on page three of a menu that offers more choices than digital cable, the Imperial Seven appears to be an afterthought. Look again. Also called Bo 7 Mon, or Bo Bay Mon, it's a seven-course beef dinner. Lacking information on how such a feast might unfold, and given cryptic course descriptions like "leaf-bounded beef" and "medium beef with lemon," all but the most curious Westerners forge ahead to the seafood, the soups, the egg foo yong. In doing so, they sidestep a fantastic Vietnamese dining custom, offered at Kim Son since its opening in 1989.
Proprietor Tina Dieu is a native of North Vietnam, where beef is scarce outside of restaurants and wealthy homes. In her homeland, Bo 7 Mon is "a good dinner when you have money," she explains. In this bovine-rich country, however, where the process of mass meat manufacturing is as slick as the assembly line at a Hershey's plant, even the current spike in beef prices hasn't pushed Kim Son's seven-course banquet above $27.98 for two. And it's a truckload of food.
It's a fun, wholesome, interactive truckload of food, preceded by a three-part setup that is to Bo 7 Mon what catsup, raw onions and buns are to an American cookout. First arrive cups of light-bodied nuoc cham: sweetened fish sauce tarted up with lime, fired with temperate red chiles and used throughout the meal as a dipping sauce. Next comes a communal salad plate loaded with leaf lettuce, purple-stemmed basil, cilantro, mint, marinated carrots and cucumber half-moons.
A stack of dampened rice papers completes the groundwork; as long as patience holds out, you dissect the topmost sheaf, bedeck it with herbs and vegetables, and wrap it spring roll-style around the beef preparation set before you -- raw eye of round fondued in a tureen of simmering vinegar at the center of the table, for example, which is the first course of Bo 7 Mon. Swishing the rosy beef slices through the garlic-seasoned broth until they just begin to darken yields the tenderest, if not most flavor-soaked, results.
Soon a waitress swaps out the tureen for a searing, steer-shaped, cast-iron skillet sizzling with brown butter. From a plate prepared in the kitchen, she adds to it more raw eye of round, this time darkened by a lemon grass marinade and speckled with sesame seeds. Again you decide when the jumping beef is ready to be furled into spring rolls, which actually turn out more like soft Asian tacos under the command of untrained hands.
Just as Bo 7 Mon is a virtual postscript on the menu, it's as routine as pouring green tea for Kim Son's staff. There's no need to call ahead; you may show up minutes before closing time and your eating pace won't influence the pace of the meal in the least. The middle three courses, which don't require additional cooking, arrive together, often before you've emptied the cow skillet. They include green onions blanketed in broiled beef; ground beef and peanuts bound in tangy, charred grape leaves; and "charcoal broiled beef," which is like warm, candied beef jerky.
Around about now, patience tends to runs thin. The rice papers begin to suction together, the novelty of playing with your food abates and instinct kicks in: You polish off the beef rolls and sweet-funky jerky like they're popcorn. No harm done.
Then the sixth course sneaks up and knocks you out of your shoes. "Medium beef with lemon" is steak tartare on holiday in Saigon. Thin, ruby-red pieces of essentially raw beef are pinwheeled on a plate and overlaid with slivers of sweet white onion, nylon-sheer shavings of lemon and rough-chopped basil, cilantro and mint; crushed peanuts scatter over the top. Aim for a lemon, and you wind up with a bit of everything between your chopsticks. A quick dunk into the nuac cham is recommended. As you chew the lean, mild meat, a million other things spark and ignite around it: the bitterness of lemon rind, the fresh astringency of cilantro, the cool breath of mint, the funkiness of fish sauce, the buttery nuts.
The final, grounding course is a watery but elegant porridge of broken rice, ground beef and pungent ginger. It's an acquired taste for some; for others, it beats dessert. None of this is to say that Kim Son isn't a seafood destination. The salt baked squid and crabs are exceptional, cooked to optimal tenderness and smothered in black pepper and onions. There's a full menu page of interesting vegetarian dishes, too. But a Bo 7 Mon in New Orleans is like spotting a quetzal in Costa Rica: a singular thrill, and most rewarding when shared with friends. Some sources claim that a Frenchman invented the custom; others believe it evolved from the typical, festive dishes already served in Vietnam's restaurants. In any case, it seems wrong that the rest of us beefmongers (are you there, Texas?) haven't been quicker to adopt the seven-course celebration of cow.