Good Evening, Vietnam

Try convincing half a dozen confirmed South Beachers to venture to the mainland for dinner. Several of these friends don't go anywhere they can't get to on Rollerblades, and seldom find themselves heading over the causeway unless they're heading to the airport or, perhaps, Home Depot. Still, somehow I managed it recently, and I wasn't even picking up the tab.

"There's another new Vietnamese place?" asked one of them, a fan of Southeast Asian cuisine, who then pointed out that he had actually ventured to Coral Gables and South Miami in the past six months to sample Miss Saigon Bistro and Tung, neither of which has yet to celebrate its first anniversary.

Well, yes, but this new addition is in an entirely different category. Thoa's on Ponce opened in September on the site of Coral Gables' renowned Bistro, and it continues that defunct restaurant's tradition of fine dining, with a twist. This is no old-fashioned sauced and trussed affair, nor is it a rustic, country experience. Instead the cuisine is based on classic French technique, but uses Southeast Asian ingredients. The result, though hardly without flaws, is an exciting and welcome asset to a neighborhood already well endowed with more standard fare.

Although the French split from Vietnam in 1954, they left an indelible culinary mark. And the Chinese, who ruled the country for a thousand-odd years, also exerted a noticeable influence. But in the hands of Thoa Fink (pronounced "twah," as in un, deux, trois), who moved to the United States in 1972, Vietnamese cuisine takes on a new dimension. In addition to the usual cold spring rolls and lemon grass chicken, plus some fused specialties such as Asian bouillabaisse and pan-roasted filet mignon over a caramelized melange of potato, garlic, and onion, the Gorgonzola garlic bread is a delicious and unexpected offering.

Thoa's seats about 40 people in a dining room that is cozier and more elegant than any of the other Vietnamese spots in town (or, for that matter, most of the South Beach establishments I can think of). The walls are covered in sheets of bundled bamboo reeds streaked with pink and beige highlights. The decorations were obviously done on a budget and consist of eerily flattened little girls' dresses flecked with elaborate embroidered scrolls and flowers. Low-voltage overhead lighting glints off the exotic orchid centerpieces on each of the well-spaced tables. Quiet conversation is actually possible. Even better, smoking is permitted only at a tiny central bar, which is manned by a personable, if amateurish, bartender; it offers a decent selection of moderately priced beers and wines. We tried some of each: Chinese and Thai beers go best with spicy dishes, and a very drinkable pinot grigio, citrusy and sweet, proved to be a sufficiently subtle complement to the complex cuisine without overwhelming it.

We chose to sample and share mostly appetizers and salads, plus a few entrees. In general the food is excellent, with fresh ingredients and authentic dishes, but execution can be somewhat inconsistent. For example, take the baby back pork ribs appetizer. We ordered it on our first visit, and it entranced even the non-meat eater in our group, who with enough goading tasted the sauce and pronounced it "divine." (We may convert her yet!) Smothered in a jet-black sauce as thick as molasses, these tender and meaty ribs were as intriguingly simple as they were delicious. Long after the ribs were gone we held on to the plate of heavenly glaze, dipping our fingers into the sweet concoction in an effort to discern its flavors. Soy for sure. Tamarind and curry? Maybe fish sauce? Sugar? Some kind of fruit? Apricot, we were told by Thoa, who makes a point to check on all the tables during dinner.

Anticipating the same on our next visit, we were sorely disappointed: The dish seemed anemic compared to its former incarnation. The sauce was as watery as old tea, and just as tasteless. Not only did we not finish the meat, we beckoned the sluggish waiter to take the plate away so that we wouldn't have to be reminded of its failings. Then we quickly found several other appetizers to console ourselves.

I'd leave the Beach anytime for Thoa's seared tuna fillet starter. The medallions, about the thickness of a fat cucumber (making them a bit too large to eat sushi-style), were perfectly blackened outside and blood-red inside. We dunked them in a tangy salsa flecked with bits of green mango and cilantro, which lent a clean and peppery accent to the steaklike fish.

No Vietnamese meal would be complete without lots of fresh greens. These are not your usual lettuce leaves with dressing, although the mixed baby greens with tamarind soy vinaigrette is excellent. The lunch menu includes six main-course salads, the dinner menu three. The beef salad is a classic Vietnamese staple: Slender cuts of medium-rare meat, tomatoes, red onions, lemon grass, and garlic chili dressing meld with fresh mixed herbs to create an explosive sensation of flavors unfamiliar to Western palates. The green papaya salad was also great: Refreshing matchsticks of tangy fruit were paired with bits of smoky pork and peanuts, accented with shredded mint leaves and lime juice.

Also good were two cold spring rolls stuffed with baby shrimp, chopped vegetables, and mint leaves: crunchy and hearty. Another starter, hot cha-gio nem, was even better. The four slender rice-paper cylinders, filled with a finely chopped mixture of shrimp, pork, black mushrooms, carrots, scallions, and vermicelli noodles, were fried to a delicate golden brown; we dipped them in a lime-based fish sauce spiked with a healthy dose of chilis.

Perhaps the best entree on the menu is the Asian bouillabaisse. Stocked generously with shellfish, including mussels and shrimp, its rich coconut broth brimmed with flavor; plump sea scallops and large chunks of sea bass floated beneath a sheath of sauce suffused with mushrooms, Thai basil, lime leaves, tomato, and ginger.

Garlic noodles, one of the only vegetarian main courses, were loaded with more chili than garlic, which rendered it inedible for most of our group. To add insult to injury, the filament-fine egg noodles were stuck together in a crusty-sugary nest so that it was impossible to snare a mouthful without picking up the whole gunky mass. The task was made even more difficult because of the super slippery chopsticks. These gorgeous pink laminated sticks would make better hair ornaments than eating utensils. On our second visit my husband brought along enough disposable wooden sticks for everyone, and was greeted with grateful applause.

We were thankful that they weren't needed for the filet mignon, which came pinkish in the middle and charred on the edges, as requested, and was served over a bed of diced potatoes browned in a sweet, buttery glaze. The meat was tender and flavorful, but the potatoes were the real star here.

The sizzling whole fish, a red snapper, arrived with as little fanfare as the rest of the dishes. When we ordered, we asked the waiter if the fish actually sizzled. He replied curtly, "Sometimes. It depends how soon I bring it out." Well, our fish had long stopped making any noise by the time it arrived at our table. Nonetheless, beneath the lukewarm, crisp brown flesh the white, moist fish was sweet and tasty.

We all agreed that our waiter, a scruffy, handsome hipster, was more attractive than professional: a real "pill" we thought, and probably a South Beach import. At least we felt at home.

From profiteroles to fruit tarts, the luscious desserts were utterly French. All looked tempting. Most impressive was a chocolate hazelnut torte, its light and moist chocolate filling almost like a pudding. Sandwiched between flaky layers of pastry and served with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, the dish rose beyond our expectations.

So too did our evening foray into foreign territory. On the whole we each pronounced the meal exceptional. "Why," asked one sated diner, "don't you make us come to the Gables more often?"

In general the food is excellent, with fresh ingredients and authentic dishes, but execution can be somewhat inconsistent.

Thoa's on Ponce.
2611 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-442-9671. Lunch Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 5:30 till 11:30 p.m.

Braised baby back ribs $8.95
Garlic noodles $10.95
Asian bouillabaisse $21.00
Sizzling whole fish $21.00
Chocolate hazelnut torte $5.



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