Good Eating, Vietnam!
I was ordering the house wine in a small outdoor café in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, where I was attending a writers' conference, when I felt a hand on my arm.
"Don't do it," a colleague warned, shaking his head. "You won't like it."
Of course Mexico isn't known for its vintages. But I have a peculiar talent, developed in the bars and taverns of the youth I like to think I am still misspending, that I rarely feel obliged to explain until the situation calls for it: I can tolerate bad wine. For me a glass of sour chardonnay with a dish of chicken breast mole isn't so much about either the vino blanco or the pechuga de gallina as it is about the entire dining experience. Wine, any wine, enhances for me the consumption of food; it completes a meal. I may not savor the beverage, but I do like to know it's there.
Every once in a while, I also appreciate sipping the equivalent of a Riunite, the way I enjoy junk food or trashy novels. Lousy wine improves my knowledge of bad, which in turn reinforces my understanding of good. So I guess all this makes me less of a vinophile than a wino. But this is not something of which to be ashamed. Whereas a vinophile can be an awful snob, a wino is congenial; whereas connoisseurs would rather go without wine, philistines forgive and gulp it down -- red, white, warm, overly chilled, spoiled, or raw.
With that stated, even I can get frustrated with a restaurant like Indochine. The six-year-old eatery, located in a strip mall on State Road 84 in Davie, serves Vietnamese and French fare fine enough to warrant at least a decent wine menu instead of the screw-top airline bottles it offers. But chef-owner Hong Sejot told us when we visited that, because no one ever ordered the good wine, she discontinued the list. She now offers one easy decision: red or white.
Enter my dinner guests, who'd called ahead for directions and inquired about the wine list. They then asked if they could bring their own. Fine, said management, for a $7 corkage fee. (A corkage fee ensures that the restaurant makes back at least some of the money it would have earned had you ordered wine from its own list.) Despite my wino leanings, I must admit that the superior vintages my friends brought with them enhanced the clean, complex flavors of Indochine's piquant Vietnamese cuisine; they brightened the tones of main courses like jumbo shrimp with lemongrass and heightened the restorative tang of garlic-ginger shrimp.
I assume my guests' wine choices would also have complemented the restaurant's French cuisine, which is mostly offered Friday and Saturday evenings. As it turns out, we were there on a weekend, but most of the French dishes weren't available. Apparently there's not a lot of demand for rich mushroom-cream sauces during the summer. We were momentarily disappointed until our attention was distracted by the French-influenced Vietnamese crepe, an appetizer hearty enough to suffice as a light dinner. The delicate, eggy crepe was filled to bursting with roast pork (or chicken, if the patron desires) and succulent jumbo shrimp, as well as a plethora of ground peanuts and bean sprouts. Pork caramel, a terrifically satisfying entrée, also boasted some European touches; the sliced pork was glazed in what tasted like a demiglace.
Still, business is not what it should be at Indochine. When I originally called the restaurant, the woman on the other end of the line told me that reservations weren't necessary. It's summertime, she explained, and most people think it's too hot to eat spicy food. Another problem may be that the restaurant is tough to find. It's not easy to see from the road, and it's stuck in a strip mall next to pizza and Chinese food joints. Even if you were to stick your head inside the place, the décor is nothing spectacular. Although it's clean and bright, with lace curtains and giant butterfly sculptures hanging from the walls, hand-lettered signs and kitchenette-style tables and chairs are also part of the mix.
Regulars, however, know that the heat's no excuse to stay home. The eatery offers several cold dishes for heat-stroke sufferers, including spring rolls -- rice paper stuffed with rice noodles, mint leaves, and shrimp -- which we dipped into a sweet-and-sour nuoc cham (fish sauce). The refreshing rice-noodle salads, featuring cool noodles interspersed with tender beef and sweet onions (or topped with slices of fried spring rolls), should also be enough, during the dog days of August, to keep Indochine's 40-odd vinyl seats filled -- even if your legs do stick to them.
Of course I don't mind not having to wait for a table; the quicker I can down some squid sautéed with mustard greens, the better. The squid, which was actually cuttlefish, a cousin in the mollusk family, was irrefutably fresh and delicious, as were all the shellfish and fish we consumed. And the cuttlefish, enhanced by the aromatic greens, was suppler than it usually is elsewhere, given its natural toughness.
I also don't mind eating spicy fare in the summer. In fact I'm of the opinion shared by folks in Vietnam, India, and other Far Eastern countries: The steamier the day, the hotter the curry should be. Think of it as acclimating your insides to the weather outside; match external temperatures with internal ones, and you'll become impervious to your discomfort. Indochine presented us with a double fillet of snapper in a zesty yellow curry sauce laced with scallions, which did the job nicely. The soups, for which the Vietnamese are justly known, also performed beautifully in the role of equalizer. Asparagus crab soup, which featured white asparagus and hefty hunks of crabmeat, was steaming but mild. For a zestier broth, check out the hot-'n'-tangy soup, a chile-rife base densely packed with shrimp (slightly overdone in our case) and vegetables.
Like the more elaborate French fare, some desserts, such as beignets, aren't currently offered at Indochine. No disappointment here, however; the restaurant churns its own tropically flavored ice cream. Coconut, my party agreed, was one of the best flavors, along with a creamy, mellow mango.
Given her years of experience, Sejot may be correct in waiting for business to pick up again before she reimplements a French menu. I have no problem with that; the Vietnamese food, which dominates the menu anyway, is a draw no matter what the season. But the wine list looks like a permanent loss. I hope she reconsiders. Even a wino recognizes that Sejot's accomplished touch deserves more than a bargain-basement glass of Gallo to accompany it.
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