You overhear the darnedest things during a meal at Magasin Cafe, a new Vietnamese restaurant that's proved so popular, and crowded, that eavesdropping is unavoidable.
At one table, a woman wants to know if she can get her spring rolls steamed, at another someone is asking if the Vietnamese crepes are sweet or savory, and in between there's a request for a side bowl of white rice, in the manner of a Chinese restaurant meal. These aren't the typical questions you hear at Vietnamese restaurants, but then Magasin and its clientele aren't typical for Vietnamese restaurants.
This isn't the first Vietnamese restaurant to open Uptown. August Moon and Jazmine Cafe have been serving many of the same dishes for years, and Magasin opened amid a flurry of new Uptown noodle shops this year. But Magasin stood out from the start, luring in capacity crowds, including many newcomers to this famously light cuisine.
Occupying a renovated space that formerly was a rundown grocery, Magasin's sleek, white surfaces and broad picture windows give it a look as contemporary and compelling as a new Apple product. A design-savvy hand set this stage, but even the patio in back — an area of lattice, broken masonry and a portable grill that doesn't fit in the kitchen — has its own DIY appeal. Like most of its peers, Magasin's prices are low (very few items cost more than $10, and it's BYOB), but presentations are prettier and more stylish.
Pho is usually the heart and soul of a Vietnamese cafe, and it's the dish aficionados judge first. Magasin's is a fair introduction, though it lacks the robust, cooked-all-day intensity and smooth but substantial viscosity of the best pho. If you already have a favorite, this one is unlikely to sway you.
The focus, and the strong suit, of Magasin is in smart, significant twists to other facets of the noodle shop script. Among the many spring roll fillings, for instance, are fried eggs with brick-red links of chewy and dense Chinese sausage. Vietnamese crepes are indeed savory, and they're more like omelets than pancakes. At Magasin, they're also very thin and folded taco-style around grilled pork, with shrimp and fried onions on top. Grilled meat and jasmine rice is another standard Vietnamese combo, but at Magasin the meat is balanced on a molded cylinder of rice with the striking addition of a sunny-side-up egg sitting atop that. Eyes follow these dishes around the room as waitresses deliver them.
Then there's Magasin's unconventional banh mi, which are made on crusty baguettes from nearby La Boulangerie. Foregoing the local standard Vietnamese loaf, with its airy crumb and crackly crisp exterior, is a big deal for banh mi, akin to a muffuletta maker switching to kaiser rolls. The result at Magasin is not necessarily more delicious, but it does effectively frame a familiar Vietnamese staple in a new way. From the dishes it serves to the vibe it stokes, that seems to be Magasin's mission all over.