Vietnam Vet

A first visit to RiceSticks, plus a return trip to Nam

Vietnamese has long been my favorite ethnic cuisine. No other cuisine is as healthy, free of fat and clear in its flavors. I've been a fanatical diner at Bien Thuy for 15 years, having long ago learned that if I want a really extraordinary meal, it's best to leave my choice to owner Suzanne Bojtchewsky.

Over the years, many other Vietnamese restaurants have opened in our city, but almost all of them have been in highly ethnic corridors like Buford Highway. Intimidated by the Third World ambiance, Atlantans have not allowed themselves to experiment much with the cuisine. Why Thai food has invaded every corner of the city while Vietnamese remains comparatively marginalized, I have no idea.

In the last year or so, two gourmet Vietnamese restaurants have opened in more mainstream locales. RiceSticks (5920 Roswell Road, 404-252-6337) has opened in Sandy Springs, while Nam (931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997) has been thriving in Midtown. I visited Nam shortly after its opening in 2003 and, after initially finding it on the bland side, I returned to enjoy several more flavorful meals. I recall that during my first visit, a server whispered to me that staff members themselves had been lobbying for the kitchen to turn up the flavors.

I was anxious to revisit the restaurant, which is operated by Alex Kinjo, who also gives Midtown its best sushi at MF Sushibar. But before I did so, I paid my first revisit last week to RiceSticks. My only serious caution about the restaurant is to avoid going on a Saturday night. I have never seen local traffic like I saw on Roswell Road, rivaling Sunset Boulevard's in Los Angeles. Making a left turn into Parkside Shopping Center was an act of heroism.

Co-owner Kevin Tran's restaurant has much eye appeal, from lighting fixtures that resemble albino tadpoles to a wall of water cascading behind glass. Tran, a vivacious young man, tools about the mirrored, black-floored dining room, occasionally singing along with the Vietnamese music. The staff is educated, wry and attractive. The clientele obviously loves the place.

Executive chef Paul Gregory's menu of food, elegantly plated on black china, is certainly authentic if not especially challenging. For novelty, there's a lengthy menu of goi cuon, rice paper rolls stuffed with rice and a variety of fillings. We ordered one with caramelized pork - one of my favorite home-style dishes in the ethnic eateries - but its salty-sweet intense flavor was toned way down from the usual I've sampled. We also tried one made with unagi (barbecued eel) and pickled ginger, served with a lemony soy sauce. Sorry, but it totally eluded me. In fact, my half of the single roll had only one shred of unagi in it.

We also ordered a starter of oven-roasted Japanese eggplant in a ginger-garlic sauce. Wayne suffered Southern apoplexy and gave me a lecture on manners when I grabbed the bigger half of the almost gooey eggplant for myself. Eating half of it defiantly, I ended up giving him a third of it. It was far too garlicky for me. I could barely taste the eggplant.

I thought entrees were much better. Wayne's market-priced whole flounder, fried after a salt-and-pepper rubdown, was sweet and flaky, served with some tasty bok choy. My own dish, "shaking" beef, was marinated cubes of tenderloin sauteed ("shaken" in a pan over high eat) with onions and served with cherry tomatoes and some greens. I was instructed to squeeze lime into a little plate of salt and pepper to make a dressing for the salad.

I was disappointed that hot Vietnamese coffee - dripped slowly at the table into a cup of condensed milk - wasn't available. When I asked for it, Tran seemed at a loss for words and finally blurted: "We tried it but nobody would wait for it to finish brewing." Bummer. Desserts were not especially impressive. A pear-jasmine sorbet was way too grainy, but a coconut flan was smooth as silk and the far better choice.

My verdict? If you live in the area, RiceSticks is worth a visit. But if you live in town, you're going to probably prefer Nam. Honestly, my meal at Nam last Monday was one of the best I've had in weeks. The dining room here remains one of the city's most erotic, with its reds as livid as lipstick and its whites as glistening as a virgin's tube of Pepsodent. The staff of gorgeous women, clad in slinky red dresses, will make you all agog.

The food is no less gorgeous - the flavors sweet, salty, spicy. Cha gio, stuffed with shrimp, pork, glass noodles and wood ear mushrooms, is fried in such a light wrapping of rice paper that it is almost lattice-like. Wrap the beauties in lettuce - no herbs are provided, alas - and dunk in fish sauce. A salad of lotus stems, shrimp and crushed peanuts, served with fish sauce, is juicy and crunchy.

Sea bass steamed in a banana leaf (the menu's most expensive dish at $22.50) instantly embeds itself in the memory. The almost custardy flesh was topped with a mysterious blend of glass noodles and shiitake mushrooms. You spoon an intense ginger sauce over the fish. It is gone in a flash. The server gasps. Hey, I'm a professional eater!

Wayne's salt and pepper prawns are also genius. Four of the gigantic creatures are sauteed with garlic, chilies and onions. For a sauce, you blend salt and pepper with lime juice (as at RiceSticks). It too disappears in a nanosecond.

Complaints? Well, Vietnamese food is like the globe's natural nouvelle cuisine. Portions are light and Wayne and I gobbled a huge quantity of rice at meal's end to fill up, then ran to Bruster's for ice cream. Nam has no desserts. But it does have the coffee RiceSticks does not.

CorrectionTwo weeks ago, I reported here that Richard Blais is working at Two Urban Licks as a consultant. I have since been informed that he is actually sous chef.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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