Pho or faux? Area chefs put their own spin on the Vietnamese noodle soup.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 11:38 AM

One of the many attractions of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, is its open-endedness, its willingness to let slurpers customize their bowls however they please. Pho parlors, of course, enable diners with a small bounty of tabletop garnishes and sauces: hoisin for sweetness, Sriracha for kick, bean sprouts for crunch, limes for tang, jalapenos for heat and Thai basil for an element of anise. You, the eater, become the flavor agent in the house of pho.

On the other hand, one of the many attractions of chefs, those white-jacketed perfectionists known for their obsessive control over everything that could compromise a meal, is their desire to prepare you something wholly their own. They want to create food as identifiable as a Philip Glass composition or the Edge's ringing guitar work. They want to create art on a white-china canvas. They definitely don't want you messin' with it.

Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but it's also one of the major tensions when chefs take on the national dish of Vietnam. To a certain degree, the tension exists even back in Vietnam, where the pho originators from the north, who probably borrowed from French colonists and their pot-au-feu, routinely frown upon those heathens in the south who have introduced many of the same defacing condiments found in the States.

As part of his accelerated education in Vietnamese cuisine, Nick Sharpe has had to deal with those tensions head-on. He is the opening chef at Ba Bay, a Capitol Hill restaurant that injects French classicism into Vietnamese cooking. Sharpe's background has nothing to do with Vietnam. He studied at Johnson & Wales before expanding his knowledge in the kitchens of R.J. Cooper (Vidalia) and Fabio Trabocchi (Maestro and Fiamma, both now gone) and then finally leading his own at Mio and Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar.

One of his first tasks at Ba Bay was to learn how to make pho. Not just any pho, but the noodle soup handed down by the owners. It was a family recipe, with the family cooks available for, ahem, consultation. "They told me what goes in it," Sharpe says of the grandmother and aunts of Khoa and Denise Nguyen, the cousins who own Ba Bay. "I did it. You can't really argue with a grandmother."

Nonetheless, the chef's first efforts were met with resistance. "When my mother, aunts and grandmother tried Nick's soup, they were perplexed. I wouldn't say they that they were unimpressed," says Denise Nguyen. "They just never knew that pho could be taken down a different avenue." To the older generation, the flavors were off. Several family members marched into the kitchen to continue Sharpe's education. "When we first opened, we were tweaking it almost every day," Khoa Nguyen says.

Sharpe has since come into his own as a pho maker, and, as you might expect, he has done so not only by understanding how to spice the soup but by also putting his own chef-driven spin on the family recipe. The beef he drops into the soup is not flank steak simmered for hours in broth, or raw eye of round frozen solid and shaved thin. No, it's rib-eye from Roseda Black Angus Farm in Monkton, Md.; Sharpe sous-vides the meat for an hour before searing it and slicing it thin. It's probably the silkiest, most flavorful beef you've ever tasted in a bowl of pho.

The chef also insists on composing the pho for customers, which means that, yes, he has taken many of the tableside decisions away. The soup arrives with what is essentially a small composed salad in the middle, a mix that includes sliced onions, bean sprouts, culantro, jalapenos, scallions, cilantro and a heady little leaf known as the rice paddy herb, which perfumes the liquid with notes of cumin and citrus. Sharpe's only concession to consumer freedom is a small tray of hoisin and Sriracha sauces. He suggests you leave it undisturbed.

"We're telling you how we like it, and we're hoping you will like it, too," Sharpe says, understanding full well that diners are accustomed to having the soup their way: "It's dangerous."

Over at PS 7's in Penn Quarter, chef-owner Peter Smith is also messing with tradition. He recently reintroduced his pho to the winter menu, and the dish has little or nothing to do with beef or even chicken, that small, auxiliary creature often used to prepare the soup. Smith uses duck bones for his pho.

"We're getting a really rich stock out of it, whereas with more-traditional pho, the broth is pretty thin," the chef says. "It's tasty; don't get me wrong. It's got a lot of flavor to it, but it's pretty thin in terms of that richness."

For his meats, Smith has borrowed a page from pho parlors and created three separate bowls, each with a different protein preparation. One features thinly sliced duck breast that Smith cures, prosciutto-style, with salt, star anise and lemon grass. Another comes with slices of duck breast that have been marinated with coriander, star anise and lemon grass and then pan-roasted to add crustiness. The third stars Smith's take on that pho standard, eye of round, but in his case, he takes the raw cut and transforms it into a Vietnamese-spiced bresaola, which is air-dried for only a fraction of the usual time to avoid that rubbery texture. Smith was even working on a seafood pho, which could be available by Monday.

Interestingly enough, for all the painstaking thought and prep that went into Smith's pho, the broth tasted predominantly sour during my first sampling, the result of limes that the chef drops into the liquid at the finish. Many of his aromatics had vanished or become noticeably muted, which reminded me of something Sharpe said he had learned about pho: Rice noodles absorb flavor. A kitchen must overcompensate with spice and extra seasonings, which runs counter to a chef's basic training. (Smith has an alternative theory: He just thinks the broth was unbalanced; he has sinced fixed it.)

That is the kind of problem a chef can encounter when there's no Vietnamese family meddling in kitchen affairs. Pho, in a sense, might not be the easiest dish for a newcomer to translate into refined restaurant cuisine. The dish is essentially perfect. The flavors are already so balanced and nuanced - a broth that's simultaneously rich, sweet, spicy and, strangely, garden fresh - that they might not take kindly to excessive refinement. Consider this fact: Michel Richard has already pulled his sablefish pho from the menu at Michel, which opened in late October at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. His spokeswoman said the celebrity chef wasn't happy with the dish. (Neither was Post food critic Tom Sietsema, who called the interpretation with soba noodles "more elegant than delicious.")

And then consider this: Chef Haidar Karoum at Proof, also in Penn Quarter, won't dare make his own pho even though he calls it, flat-out, "my favorite food of all time, my deathbed meal." He says he doesn't want to turn the joy of slurping pho into a quotidian chore. So instead, Karoum has devised what he terms a "pho terrine," prepared with scraps left over from the dry-aged rose veal he orders from Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Va. He mixes the ground veal with a puree of cilantro, jalapeno and onion as well as a toasted combination of star anise, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper. Cooked in a water bath and topped with a sauce of hoisin and Sriracha, the terrine is a spicy tribute to Karoum's beloved soup, with perhaps a side salute to that other Vietnamese staple, the banh mi sandwich.

And how has the dish been received at Proof? "They order it quite a bit," Karoum says. "It actually outsells the [pate de] campagne."

Of the chef-driven phos that I've unearthed around town, only one is a straight-up, no-nonsense take on the Vietnamese soup. It's the version occasionally prepared by chef Justin Bittner and sous-chef Ben Lackey at Bar Pilar in Logan Circle. They follow the recipe in Pauline Nguyen's "Secrets of the Red Lantern" cookbook (Andrews McMeel, 2008), with only the addition of daikon to cut the sweetness. The recipe calls for simmering the broth "overnight," which Bittner translates into nearly 24 hours of stove time. And here's the kicker: The stock is prepared with not only beef bones but also a whole, head-on chicken, which requires a trip to Virginia for the ingredient. It's an investment of time that Bittner doesn't often make. He can't even remember the last time he put pho on the menu.

Bittner's respect for tradition might extend all the way to the table. As of last week, he was still debating whether to let customers doctor their own soup, which is available again at Bar Pilar. "We always have Sriracha here because we use it for brunch," Bittner says. "We'll probably end up doing it the traditional way of putting a plate of [garnishes] out."


Ba Bay Pho Bo

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