Good Munching, Vietnam
If you want to check out how well a restaurant is doing, visit on a Monday or Tuesday evening. Stop by an ethnic establishment, a place to which people go for particular flavors. Schedule your meal during prime-time TV hours, when the kids have gone to bed and most folks would prefer to curl up on the couch with a pizza. Or make sure it's raining outside, the kind of downpour that keeps people inside, where they finally get around to defrosting last year's meat loaf for dinner. If the place you visit is still crowded, something must be going on.
All of the above factors weighed in when I went to La Tre, a Vietnamese restaurant at 249 E. Palmetto Park Rd. in Boca Raton, and found tables scarce. And something was going on: thoughtfully prepared cuisine, served in a bright, family-run dining room accented by Art Deco-inspired metallic chairs, white tablecloths, and lacquered Oriental wall-hangings. The only catch, for regulars, is a bit of confusion concerning the name.
Once owned by restaurateur, chef, and cookbook author Binh Duong, who penned The Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking (Prentice Hall Press, 1991), La Tre used to be known as La Truc, which opened seven years ago several doors away from where it stands today. But Duong, who also runs the busy Truc Orient Express in Hartford, Connecticut, downsized his upscale operation last year and moved it to a smaller site, which is operated by his brother, Toi Duong. The resulting full house, which would have been half a house at La Truc, made service slow in the 75-seat storefront dining room and caused the kitchen to run out of quail, one of the entrees we'd ordered. But even the hour wait for our main courses didn't detract from the pleasurable fare.
The name La Tre hints at Vietnam's former connection to France, but only the desserts (creme caramel, for instance) smack of Napoleon. Likewise the 1000-year Chinese rule of the country shows up in only one or two dishes. For the most part, the menu smacks of Vietnam's independence.
One characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine is that it's served at about room temperature, so the salads were only faintly cool, the cooked dishes less than hot. Our freshly wrapped goi cuon, or summer rolls, were refreshing but not refrigerator-chilled, a fact we appreciated. The supple rice-paper skin swelled with an assortment of boiled shrimp, crisp lettuce, strands of vermicelli, and potent mint and coriander leaves. A rich bean-paste condiment, garnished with chopped peanuts, added piquancy to the salad rolls.
Unlike the French, who end their meals with salad, the Vietnamese start with it. We delighted in Truc goi vit, a selection of mixed greens tossed with slices of roasted duck, roasted Holland red bell peppers, and a spicy dill vinaigrette. The succulent, medium-rare duck, devoid of fat, was deliciously paired with the robust peppers and buttery lettuces.
On rainy winter nights I crave something warm, so I started my meal with the cabbage-roll soup. The chicken stock, flavored with fish sauce and rife with chopped green onions, was steamy but not scalding, heated to a drinkable degree. Instead of dumplings, as you might find in a Chinese restaurant, three cabbage rolls were filled with ground pork and tied with long strands of scallions to create tasty little presents.
Cha gio Truc dac biet, special shrimp rolls, could have also been placed under a tree. Three triangular turnovers were plump with a mixture of ground crabmeat, pork, and shrimp. The deep-fried, rice-paper covering may have been a little stale and greasy, but the nuoc mam, the ubiquitous dipping sauce based on fermented fish, gave the shrimp rolls a flavorful boost.
On the back page of La Tre's menu is a list of vegetarian dishes, including another trinity: ca tim chien don, three juicy pieces of crisp eggplant blanketed with bean-thread noodles. The untidy bundles were fried to a crackling finish and drizzled with plum sauce -- a sweet, tangy touch.
The vegetarian menu also features half a dozen entrees, including a rice-batter crepe called banh xeo chay, or "monk crepe." Inside the pan-fried pancake, which looked like an omelet, were numerous vegetables, most notably bean sprouts, mushrooms, and onions. (When stuffed with shrimp, pork, or chicken, they are called "happy pancakes.") The crunchy crepe was softened by a sweet-tangy nuoc cham, fish sauce doctored with lime juice, sugar, vinegar, and chili peppers.
On the regular menu, seafood dominates. Goi muc was pearly squid, the strips of body meat sliced and marinated in fish paste, tamarind pulp, lime juice, garlic, and coriander. Tenderized by the marinade, the squid was spicy from chilies and tart from lemongrass. Onions and crushed peanuts were thrown on top for texture. The dish is listed as a main course on the menu, but Binh Duong calls it a salad in his book, so don't be surprised when it's served in a manner considered "cold" by most.
La Tre also offers a beautiful grilled salmon. This skin-on fillet was marinated in rice-wine sauce, then grilled until the skin blackened and separated from the meaty fish. Moist and fragrant, the salmon was accompanied by verdant, wok-charred broccoli and two stalks of asparagus as big as trees.
Tempting as the seafood is, the meat dishes are hard to overlook. Bo sate, beef sauteed with shiitake mushrooms, was savory and filling, the thin shavings of meat curled delicately around the heartier mushrooms. Snow peas garnished the plate, soaking up the mild satay sauce. Banh hoi thit nuong, barbecued pork, was a little dry, but the flavor was terrific. Slices of seared tenderloin, marinated in garlic-spiced wine, were charcoal-broiled, then placed over vermicelli noodles doctored with scallions, peanuts, and nuoc cham for subtle enhancement.
Rice is served with all entrees, but portions aren't large enough for leftovers, so count on finishing every scrap of your meal. We had room for the homemade desserts, many of which are light and fruity. Steer clear of the cheesecake, a lumpy effort, and steer toward the lemon mousse, a confection so airy we saw bubbles. The most refreshing sweet was a natural one: Longan nuts, an Asian fruit, were presented soaking in ice water. Looking like curls of pale sherbet, the peeled, seeded fruits were somewhat crunchy, like the firmer lychee nuts.
Providing strong, cleanly flavored dishes to counteract the mugginess of tropical weather, Vietnamese cuisine seems to have taken root here in the suburban subtropics. Like Chinese restaurants in the Seventies, Vietnamese eateries have become more common, though many of them are not dependable and could use a tweak or two.
La Tre is an exception. Its name and location could be changed a dozen times, and it would still command loyalty. The space may be a little tight, and the pace of service a little slow, but the kitchen is always in bloom.
La Tre. 249 E. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-392-4568. Lunch Monday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 6 to 10 p.m.
Spicy tamarind squid
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