How do you choose a vacation destination? I don't think I'm alone when I admit that tasting a country's food can get me on a plane to the source. Be Won makes South Korea seem like a great place to spend a few weeks. Ya Hala makes me want to pack my bags for Lebanon. Pho Van, with its vividly flavored fare, has definitely moved Vietnam a few notches up on my list of trips to take real soon.
Green Papaya, which opened downtown in August, doesn't make as convincing a case as Pho Van for buying a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. Owner Mai Nguyen bills it as a "contemporary Vietnamese bistro," but the chefs at the helm are Peter Tat, who specializes in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, and Le Ho, whose background is in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.
No wonder, then, that the menu has a distinctly Pan-Asian flair, with starters like the delicious Japanese-inspired squid salad ($6), with tender shredded squid and green-bean-like wasabi leaf dressed in a sweet sesame dressing, and noodle dishes like pad Thai ($6.50-$7).
Chicken satay ($2-$4), chicken breast pounded thin and grilled on skewers, was accompanied by a vibrant peanut sauce, its sweetness balanced with something acidic, perhaps lime juice. An otherwise fine rendition of a Vietnamese classic--deep-fried crispy rolls ($4.50) stuffed with crab, shrimp and pork--lacked the heap of fresh greenery traditionally served with the dish. In fact, that crunchy tangle of mint, basil, cilantro and lettuce, ubiquitous at most Vietnamese restaurants, was not served with any dish we tried in three visits to Green Papaya, a disappointing omission.
Several main courses were unqualified winners. Try the sea bass ($16), a square fillet steamed to a delicate flakiness and topped with Chinese five-spice. A worthy stir-fry of filet mignon cubes ($18), tossed in butter and finished with cognac, gives a nod to Vietnam's French colonial past. Fans of participatory dining will enjoy the lemongrass hotpot ($20), a bubbling cauldron of spicy broth in which you cook your own salmon, prawns and veggies.
The big mystery about many dishes at Green Papaya, though, is where the flavor went. Garlic, pepper, lemongrass and sesame appear in the menu's prose but rarely in the food. The restaurant doesn't use MSG, which is commendable, but it needs to be replaced with something. Noticeably AWOL was Vietnam's classic seasoning, nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), which should be a subtle presence in most dishes. In the same way that a squeeze of anchovy paste adds a multidimensional flavor to Italian cooking, nuoc mam gives depth to Vietnamese cuisine.
Kitchen miscalculations marred a number of dishes. The balanced flavors and buttery finish of "crispy silken tofu" ($7-$8) couldn't hide the fact that, on two occasions, it was neither crispy nor silken but spongy and chewy. Pork in a lunch special was tasty but grilled to leather, and spicy Vietnamese udon curry in creamy coconut milk ($7-$9) had chile-pepper hotness but zero depth of flavor. An all-purpose veggie combo of red onion and red bell pepper appears in far too many dishes, the huge wedges of onion practically raw.
Servers bubble with enthusiasm and eagerly recommend favorite items, though polish can be lacking. One waiter repeatedly called me and my lunch partner "girls," not a wise choice when expecting to be tipped by women in the 21st century. Then there was the night when the pepper-and-garlic steak ($12) proved to be tough cubes of flank steak that tasted of neither pepper nor garlic. We left most of it on the plate, and we figured our waitress hadn't noticed, because she didn't offer to replace it or remove it from the bill. Then as she cleared the table, she said, "You ought to try the filet sometime. It's a little more expensive, but it's much better." It's hard to know what to make of such advice.
To its credit, Green Papaya offers a seriously intentioned wine list at fair prices. Some fine-tuning by a wine expert would help, though. The whole thing needs organizing (by grape variety would be the most user-friendly option), and it's tough to locate the well-chosen by-the-glass selections. In any case, a 35-bottle list is over-ambitious here: The restaurant should pare it down to about 20 wines that really zing with the food.
My meals at Green Papaya haven't sent me rushing to the airport. But if the kitchen finds its way to more assertive flavors, I may need a travel agent yet.
1135 SW Morrison St., 248-2112
11 am-2:30 pm and 4-10 pm Monday-Saturday.
Green Papaya is owner Mai Nguyen's first solo venture, but she has promising credentials. She was born in Da Nang, raised in San Francisco, and has run restaurants with her mother in California, Utah and Texas.
Picks: Chicken satay, marinated sea bass fillet, stir-fried filet mignon.