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Review: Namese 

Scott Gold goes for pho and more at the Mid-City Vietnamese hangout

click to enlarge Namese server Tran Tran holds a bowl of pho at the Tulane Avenue restaurant.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Namese server Tran Tran holds a bowl of pho at the Tulane Avenue restaurant.

Vietnamese restaurants in the Crescent City have become so popular — with pho and banh mi joints seeming to pop up in a different corner of the city every week — it's hard to believe a new one can truly stand out. Tulane Avenue's Namese offers Vietnamese fare that aims to be a step or two above your corner noodle joint without treading into fine dining waters. The restaurant offers a pair of small but comfortable dining rooms as well as a patio. The restaurant's decor is modern and clean without being too slick or spare. It's a welcoming environment — the lighting hits the sweet spot between romantic and too dark to read the menu. If you're waiting for a seat while it's busy, a fully stocked bar offering house cocktails can take off the edge. Appetizers include fried pot stickers, egg rolls, calamari and other familiar dishes, but the kitchen executes these with noticeably more attention and creativity than you'd find at a take-out spot or sports bar. A plate of chicken wings inspired by those found in Phu Quoc, Vietnam are a standout, fried perfectly and finished with garlic sauce. For diners who want to sample the menu without overdoing it, the banh mi trio sampler is a good bet: three slices of French bread topped with roasted pork, lemongrass-marinated steak and barbecue shrimp, dressed with cilantro and pickled vegetables. As for larger plates, the results are mixed but mostly satisfying. Namese offers a number of pho options, some better than others. Pho tai, traditionally served with rare steak (often flank or brisket), arrives with a side plate of chilled, carpaccio-style raw filet mignon to add to the soup. The beef broth lacked depth, especially compared to longstanding pho joints in town. Pho ga (chicken noodle) is a much better option here. There are several notable house specialty entrees, including a solid plate of marinated and grilled Gulf shrimp with jasmine rice and vegetables, and an outstanding fried soft-shell crab with "crabby rice" covered in fragrant crab gravy also available as a side. A Cuban-style pressed sandwich with duck was packed with flavor and is well worth checking out. One misstep at Namese is inconsistent pricing per portion size. For just under $11, you can get a combination that includes a full banh mi sandwich and a sizable bowl of pho, while $12 to $13 gets you two plates of bao (steamed buns). The lemongrass chicken and steak fillings are delicious, but the four small buns leave one wanting more. Similarly, spring rolls with pork belly and shrimp seemed comparatively overpriced for $9. House-made Asian-spiced butter pecan ice cream aims high but misses the mark with a mealy consistency. It's not easy for a new Vietnamese restaurant to make a special place for itself in a town packed with similar eateries, but Namese is certainly doing that. Tulane Avenue is lucky to have it.

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