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House Sweet Home

The thesaurus contains relatively few synonyms for restaurant, and even those aren't necessarily synonymous. An eatery is not a diner, which is not a café. A bistro isn't quite a brasserie, and neither of those is anything like a trattoria. Even a seemingly generic word like place conjures up some specific associations when it comes to dining. How's a restaurateur to choose the most apt, descriptive term to put on his sign that will attract the right kind of clientele?

For the owners of Lê's House, the choice of nomenclature was an easy one. Proprietors Angela and Wayne Steele simply had to take a look around. In one corner Wayne has set up a makeshift office, complete with laptop and printer; he often works while keeping an eye on the dining room, a tranquil place with glossy formal furniture, fountains, and koi ponds. Behind him, on what was once a stage, rests a jumbled cornucopia of toys, including a miniature bike, equipped with training wheels, that any self-respecting toddler would rightly covet. These playroom items belong to Wayne and Angela's two-year-old son, who spends his evenings in the restaurant with his folks. It's pretty clear that the family virtually lives here.

And it's not just this trio, either, but an extended family that makes Lê's House a home. Along with Angela, her mother and sister (all of whom hail from Saigon) cook in the kitchen, turning out Vietnamese dishes that are simultaneously traditional and sophisticated. Angela's two-year-old hands out menus, and her sixteen-year-old son often waits tables. Wayne's mother and stepfather (white Americans like Wayne) frequent the eatery, too, to help out with hosting and baby-sitting duties. Even if the family members do nothing, having them around is a virtue -- so many warm bodies occupying the 100-seat space makes the restaurant look busy, which can comfort first-time diners or those unfamiliar with Vietnamese fare.

A drawback of this family environment is that service can be oversolicitous. If he doesn't recognize you as a regular, Wayne will be at your table explaining the concepts behind Vietnamese cuisine, even if you assure him you've eaten it before. Before you have time to take a bite of a dish, he'll appear to ask how it is. He'll stand over you as you sample it. And if a waitress makes a relatively minor mistake, as ours did when she poured over ice the Vietnamese coffee we wanted hot, you'll immediately be surrounded by clucking staff members, all fussing and wanting to know how to make it better. So much maternal care reminds us that mothering and smothering are basically the same word.

Take the service with a grain of salt, and do the same with Steele's recommendations, which are overly enthusiastic. The Vietnamese crepe with shrimp, an appetizer, was not the best one I'd ever had, as he promised; in fact the lightly fried batter was greasy, and the folded turnover filled with mostly bean sprouts. Nor was the Saigon hen, a signature entrée Steele lauded, anything truly special. Though he claimed the Rock Cornish hen had been marinated for three days before being roasted, we found it bland. And while the skin was a beautiful caramel hue and was wonderfully crisp, the interior meat was dry.

If you follow your own instincts and cravings, however, you can have an extremely pleasant experience at Lê's House. The menu has 129 items, not counting drinks and desserts, so even the pickiest eater can find some combination of ingredients to appreciate.

With a choice of no less than 24 soups, it might make sense to start a meal with one or even make a meal out of one. We enjoyed "Lê's House famous tomato soup," an aromatic, frothy concoction that tasted like rich chicken stock afloat with sliced tomatoes. Though the menu doesn't say this soup could serve more than one person, keep in mind that, during the upcoming flu season, it could easily soothe four sore throats.

An excellent way to sample numerous starters is to order the appetizer platter, but only if you like shrimp. The crustacean was featured in every item on the platter. The shrimp were perhaps best nestled whole in a bird's-nest basket made from sweet potato shreds that were molded, then fried. Wrapped in a beignet (which was actually a covering of fried noodles rather than the donutlike dough New Orleans fans recognize), the shrimp were a little lost. They fared better snuggled in stretchy rice paper, with coriander and shredded vegetables as stuffing companions. Finally, in the deep-fried Imperial roll, the shrimp were just a bit too greasy, but still plump and flavorful.

When I find a restaurant that serves good, fresh shrimp, I tend to rely on it to satisfy my lust for the tasty critters -- to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Despite all the fine prawny appetizers, I'll be a little disappointed if on my next visit Lê's House isn't offering its shrimp in tamarind sauce. Served in a clay pot, redolent of lemongrass and ginger as well as tangy tamarind, the shrimp were a blackboard special. As this item is one of Wayne Steele's favorite dishes -- he confided to us that he eats the sauce like a soup -- you can be sure it appears often on the list of nightly specials.

The kitchen staff does well with all harvests from the sea, and a whole snapper was especially tasty, bathed in a subtle, ginger-enhanced peanut sauce. Wayne popped over again when this dish was served, but this time his assistance was warranted because he expertly deboned the fish for us. The sweet, tender flesh of the snapper was a good foil for the slightly heavier sauce.

While fish and seafood do dominate at Vietnamese restaurants in general (the national condiment is nuoc cham, a dried fish-based sweet-and-sour sauce), beef saté or beef stir-fried with lemongrass and bell peppers are comforting options at Lê's House. You can also request a tabletop grill and cook your own beef or chicken. We especially liked a main course of pork au caramel, a hot pot of braised, slow-cooked pork covered with spiced onions. As far as poultry goes, the aforementioned Saigon hen was served plain, as was an appetizer of roasted quail. But whereas the first was farmyard blah, the second was game-bird bliss, full of rich flavors and slick, juicy dark meat.

If too much service can never be enough for you, beckon the staff back with an order of bananas flambé for dessert. The firm banana slices were presented tableside, then doused in alcohol and set afire. After the brief bath of flame, they turned out candied, not blackened, and were wonderful paired with mild coconut ice cream. Vietnamese coffee, which steeps at the table, cuts the sugar -- unless you ask for yours with sweetened condensed milk.

In fact the thickened milk product will probably be the heaviest item you'll encounter all evening (including the tab), unless you can't resist the urge to remove the staff physically from your personal space. But then, close attention from swarming relatives is what you should expect from any restaurant that calls itself a house. And in this case, surrounded by toys and office paraphernalia and a certain amount of controlled chaos, there's the added virtue of knowing that when your meal is done, you can leave without being called on to clear the table.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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