If this kid knew he was the luckiest guy in the whole restaurant, the look of trepidation on his face certainly didn't give it away. Whole fried fish and unidentifiable jungle greens certainly weren't on my short list of favorite foods when I was in high school. But maybe if I had access to lunch invitations to Nine Roses with a table full of people who were raised on this sort of cooking, things would have worked out differently.
As it stands now, I've been eating Vietnamese food at local restaurants on pretty much a weekly basis for the past eight years, and still, every time I crack the huge menu at Nine Roses I find something new and intriguing if not downright mysterious. A meal here can be something like self-directed entertainment dining, complete with a dizzying array of props and do-it-yourself tabletop chemistry.
Come with a few people, order a dish or two each and soon the table might become filled with baskets of immaculately fresh lettuce, basil, cilantro, julienned cucumber, pickled carrots and radishes, trays of stiff rice-paper sheets with a bowl of hot water to dunk and soften them, finger bowls of fish sauce, peanut sauce and hot sauce " all of which can be variously combined, wrapped and rolled with meats and seafood.
This is not the place to go for pho. Compared to specialists like Pho Tau Bay and Tanh Dinh in Gretna, the broth in Nine Roses' version of this ambrosial beef and noodle soup tastes plain and washed out. But Nine Roses is an excellent place for other types of soup, listed somewhere around chapter 2 on the voluminous menu as 'thin soup and hot pots." Even the 'small" version of one of these soups entails a veritable cauldron accompanied by a few small bowls to ladle out individual portions. The hot-and-sour soup combines an unusual blend of chopped tomatoes, pineapple, okra and celery for flavors that bounce around the palate before you even get to the shrimp, catfish or chicken that might be added. A simpler but no less delicious soup, called canh cai be xanh, has a clear, light broth with fresh mustard greens and wads of ground shrimp and ground pork. It is hearty and refreshing all at once, and when a cold day finally appears later this year, I might just slurp down a whole bowl of it myself.
Surprises lurk everywhere on the menu. One hot pot was like a casserole of catfish steaks in a thick brown sauce baked and sprinkled with tiny cracklins for salty, fatty bursts against the strong fish flavor. Then there's the bo tai chanh, which arrives as a pile of cold, practically raw sliced beef over raw onions and dressed with lemon juice like a Vietnamese version of carpaccio. Jellyfish, cooked down to little squiggly ribbons, are a crunchy, marine-flavored garnish on a meaty, fresh-tasting 'summer delight salad" of sliced shrimp, cold, roasted pork, carrots and celery in a sweet, spicy vinaigrette.
Some of the most exciting choices here are truly hands-on undertakings. Order the bo nuong vi, for instance, and the waitress brings a plate of raw, marinated beef and knobs of butter cut right from the stick, followed by a mini brazier on which you cook it all yourself. After grilling a few slices, you roll them up with the vegetables and sauces in rice paper wrappers. The bo nhung dam calls for a similar approach, but it involves a pot of bubbling rice vinegar in which you cook the raw beef fondue style.
The menu contains literally hundreds of dishes, and even though many have only subtle differences from one another, the list represents a vast array of choices. Some, like the fatty and sticky chunks of ginger duck or the scrawny roasted quail aren't likely to be repeats. But throw a dart at this menu and you could end up hitting something amazing like large, green-lipped mussels charbroiled in their shells with a green onion butter sauce or a bowl of luscious, aromatic eel and banana blossom soup. That is, of course, unless you can score an invitation to eat with a table full of insiders to this gorgeous cuisine and become the luckiest person in the whole restaurant yourself.