Going Global in the Gables

I'm a little ticked off at Food & Wine. To celebrate the magazine's twentieth year of publication, writer Jonathan Hayes chose what he considers the world's top twenty food cities, including "culinary capitals" such as Paris, Rome, Bangkok, and Oaxaca. In a short paragraph about each city, he mentions premier restaurants, shops, and markets where ethnic specialties abound. Paris and Rome, I expected. But Oaxaca? Over the more obvious and sophisticated Mexico City, for crying out loud?

In her monthly column "Notes from the Editor," Food & Wine's Dana Cowin gushes, "There is amazing food to be had from Bombay to Oaxaca. It's time to eat both local and global." Perhaps that's why the list included only three American cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The magazine seems to be contending that we need to look outward rather than inward, even though the publication was founded to celebrate American chefs. So go figure. But here's where my real beef comes in: If Food & Wine can cite Oaxaca, why stick with the usual U.S. suspects? Why not choose a city that best illustrates an all-inclusive dining philosophy. A place like, say, Miami?

Oh, okay, in the same issue the magazine was gracious enough to embrace us as one of a dozen cities in its "1998 Restaurant Poll," a national summary of opinions solicited from unnamed "restaurant professionals." The short paragraph about Miami highlighted Chef Allen's as the area's quintessential spot, Norman's as the most creative, China Grill as providing the best people-watching, and Pacific Time as the best value, a list I mostly agree with except for the part about Pacific Time. Delicious, yes. But with its eensy servings, PT is definitely not a bargain.

But I stray. The point is, our food scene is world-class. And places other than the upscale fusion joints are worthy of the tastemakers' attention. Nowhere is that clearer than in Coral Gables, where high-end Vietnamese cuisine joins a host of already thriving international restaurants. Thoa on Ponce is set to debut any day now, and Miss Saigon Bistro, on Giralda Avenue, has been steadily drawing customers since it opened two months ago. The 55-seat restaurant, run by the Nguyen family, serves what it calls "home-style Vietnamese cuisine." But the wine list, which features mostly modest California vintages, also boasts some pricier bottles, including a Cakebread Cellars chardonnay for $48. And the decor -- lemon-hued, sponge-painted walls stenciled with orchids, white linen tablecloths, and a variety of real orchids growing in pots -- is undeniably elegant. As for chef Gai-t Nguyen ("Miss T," as she's known to friends and family), she's no stranger to fine cuisine, having worked under Pascal Oudin at Coconut Grove's Grand Cafe in the Eighties.

After Gai-t and her husband Dung emigrated from Saigon in 1974 with their ten children (all born in Vietnam but given Western names), they first introduced Vietnamese food at the Canton restaurant in the Mall of the Americas. Their oldest daughter has since branched out on her own and operates a pair of Japanese restaurants (one in Dadeland, another in Doral); six other offspring, three boys and three girls, cook in the kitchen and wait tables at Miss Saigon Bistro. (Three others don't work in the business at all.)

The Nguyens are friendly, and they're happy to regale customers with their tumultuous passage to America; they'll even tell you their war stories -- real ones from Vietnam. They're also addicted to the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, as evidenced by the brilliantly colored traditional aodia, or long dress, worn by women in the show and at the restaurant. (An aodia is similar to a sari and just as beautifully hued.) In fact Rik Nguyen, the youngest member of the family and a University of Miami student when he's not telling jokes or urging patrons to visit the restaurant's Website (www.gate.net/~dtpham), insists that the show's soundtrack be played at all times. It could all be so tacky, but it's not.

Nor is the cooking provincial. Vietnam, as a former French colony, takes its cuisine very seriously. As a result, Miss Saigon's lemon-grass crispy fish entree was as expertly handled as any Frenchified fillet. The yellowtail snapper fillet was pan-fried to a delicate crunch, then doused in a light citrusy sauce. Perfection.

Dishes are served as they're made, which means they may straggle out one at a time instead of all at once as a complete order. They're also closer to room temperature rather than steaming hot, a practice that allows subtle seasonings such as lemon grass and fresh herbs like mint leaves to remain fresh. You're best off ordering the dishes listed as house specials. One of these, caramelized ribs, was a tender main course that we shared as an appetizer since it arrived first. The short ribs, little knobs of bone with generous amounts of pork clinging to them, were, as one daughter-waitress had told us, "finger-licking good."

We found neater finger food in a true starter of goi cuon (summer rolls). Springy rice paper was stuffed with chopped shrimp and sliced pork, iceberg lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, and cilantro. A rich nutty sauce was provided for dipping; a good idea, as these two rolls, divided into halves, tended to be bland. You can get a similar, deep-fried appetizer called bi cuon (winter rolls), or cha gio (spring rolls), fried rice paper filled with ground meat. We enjoyed the spring rolls that garnished a large bowl of rice noodles (bun cha gio). The nest of noodles was also tossed with iceberg lettuce, crisp bean sprouts, cucumber, carrot, crushed peanuts, and a definitive nuoc cham, or sweet-and-sour fish sauce. We had to request more sauce to liven up the noodles, which can be somewhat plain.

Two piquant items could have used a little tenderizing. A calamari salad was zingy with onion, scallions, cilantro, and a chili-infused lemon dressing, but the squid itself was tough and chewy. Pan-seared sirloin steak cubes, tossed with onions and vinaigrette, suffered similarly: great flavor, poor texture. Kind of like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, come to think of it.

The Vietnamese are known for their soups, or pho, and Miss Saigon Bistro did not disappoint. The restaurant offers more than a dozen, whose origins can be traced to various parts of Vietnam -- from the northern meatball noodle soup to the southern steamed noodles in oyster sauce. We went for the family-size canh chua, a satisfying tureen of hot-and-sour broth that contained bean sprouts, okra, tomato, and pineapple. A plethora of jumbo shrimp also floated in the clear soup, which was highly flavored with mint, cilantro, and garlic.

As much as the soup is a must, dessert is a mustn't. Heavy layer cakes (chocolate, black forest, and carrot) and tiramisu, which the Nguyens bring in from elsewhere, don't complement the cuisine. Many Vietnamese simply eat fruit at the end of a meal; coconut sorbet is probably the closest you'll get here.

But all told, the quality of the Vietnamese cuisine at Miss Saigon Bistro raises the level of ethnic eating in Miami. Food & Wine, take note: Now that we've achieved national acclaim, we will no longer tolerate international un-recognition.

Miss Saigon Bistro
146 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 305-446-8006. Lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. till 10:00 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday from 5:00 till 10:00 p.m.

Summer rolls
$3.95
Calamari salad
$7.25
Canh chua
$7.50
Caramelized ribs
$10.95
Lemon-grass crispy fish
$14.95

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