The grilled lemon grass chicken over vermicelli, by contrast, required all the mental focus of watching a rerun. The skewered chicken was blackened under layers of char and caramelized honey, which entombed the meat and its pungent ginger-and-garlic marinade like prehistoric critters trapped in amber. The fragrance of lemon grass danced over this sticky mass of fire and flesh, and I loved every bite that my tablemate afforded me.
Had my eating stopped there you might be booking a table now, yes? But summer has begun to tumble dry the District again, which makes it prime chef-vacation season. Poor timing for Pho Bar and Grill, but the confluence of chef’s departure and critic’s arrival made for some unhappy meals. Then again, dining dollars spent on the scrimmage team are the same as those spent on the Pro Bowlers.
It wasn’t just about the carved vegetables, either. Those were merely outward symptoms of an organism with deeper ailments. My fried-rice combination plate appeared bereft of proteins other than its charred scraps of pork, and, worse, the entire mound sported more oil than the sunbathers on Ipanema beach. The comic tragedy was complete when I was presented with a small bowl of oily hot sauce, presumably to pour atop the rice. I felt like a Texaco roughneck who had just been offered a mug of vegetable oil.
The steamed chicken dumplings, on the other hand, looked gorgeous with their colorful garnish of scallions, fried onions and sesame seeds, but the thick packages were gummy and lukewarm. The barbecued beef in my banh mi had dehydrated into ginger-flavored jerky and served on a roll as moisture-free as pork rinds. The aforementioned lemon grass chicken salad was a variation on the vermicelli preparation, the protein simply chopped up and dumped over wan iceberg lettuce.
Then there was the vegetarian pho packed with onions, broccoli, firm tofu, celery, carrots, baby corn and overcooked rice noodles far too thin and limp to ferry much flavor. Its broth was brook-water clear and tasted mostly of cabbage, free of any Vietnamese aromatics that define the soup. I figured it was a mistake until I learned later that the recipe calls for no spice at all.
This chef-absence theory may be more complicated than I thought.