Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner daily, 5 to 10 p.m., for drinks and dancing after 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All major credit cards. Reservations. Parking lot adjacent. Prices: Main courses at dinner average $5 to $6.
The first wave of Vietnamese restaurants several years ago washed ashore in slapdash places with small menus, but they created cravings among Washingtonians for those papery-crusted, slim, meat-stuffed rolls known as cha gio and taught us to appreciate -- or at least tolerate -- the pungency of fresh green coriander.
The newer wave of Vietnamese restaurants, starting with Germaine's and spreading to the suburbs, offers serving environments of Eastern elegance as well as more elaborate menus. Such is the Viet Nam Bistro, a large addition to the Wilson Boulevard dining strip that even turns into a disco after dinner on Friday and Saturday. Viet Nam Bistro has grasscloth walls and lacy bamboo hanging lamps. Arrangements of bamboo poles suggest huts and gardens. White enamel chairs with woven seats are pulled up to tables with cloths in soft orange. Waitresses wear long native dresses, though often westernized by sweaters. The room is fresh and colorful, discreetly exotic. And the appetizers being fried at the long bar make the dining room sound and smell exotic as well.
Obviously this restaurant took planning and work, and the effort shows on the menu. Six soups are offered: the beef and rice noodle soup that might be considered the national dish; a pork-and-shrimp-garnished Mekong Delta soup; a chicken broth with noodles and firm meatballs as spicy as sausage; a tart fish and shrimp soup and asparagus-crab soup. At $2 for a large portion (called "small" on the menu), or $2.75 for a portion that approaches meal-size, they are good soups with rich broths. One must by all means try the beef noodle soup to taste the balance of black pepper, ginger, clove, anise, coriander and scallion against a lemony tang. This interplay of tastes is what is so intriguing about Vietnamese food, along with the complexity of color and texture.
While the deep-frying at Viet Nam Bistro is appealing because the process is visible to the diner, batter-fried foods here are greasier than is ideal, and therefore not the best of choices. Among the three appetizers, deep-fried butterfly shrimp -- plump and rubbed with spices -- fall short of excellence for their greasiness, but their rice flour batter is light and fluffy. Shrimp toast need to reverse the proportions of shrimp and bread to emphasize the shrimp flavor. Best of the three -- and also available as a main course -- are the cha gio or imperial rolls. Their crabmeat-pork stuffing is pungent with black pepper, meaty and crunchy with bits of mushroom, onion and bean sprouts.
To try a variety of Viet Nam Bistro's specialties and eat reasonably, you can sample the three combination platters, $7.50 each. They include cha gio and two or three other dishes -- skewered beef, pork or chicken, with caramel pork or chicken curry; or turmeric baked fish with steamed quiche. Their variety, however, outshines their character. Viet Nam Bistro unfortunately overcooks its skewered meats: the lemon chicken, barbecued beef and combination called gold coins. Although they are well seasoned, fragrant with lemon grass and other highly perfumed marinade ingredients, all their juices are cooked out. Steamed quiche is a dish to order, a deep, meaty custard made of the same ingredients as the cha gio filling. And apollo seafood is even better if you like squid, for the tender squids are stuffed with that same pork and crabmeat filling and coated with a delicately sweetened and vinegared sauce that sounds an unlikely complement to squid, but it works. Another exotic combination is baked turmeric fish filet; though the fish tastes as if it had been frozen, the topping of shredded ginger, hair-thin noodles, tomato and onion wedges with dill and turmeric is a tantalizing medley of tastes.
The menu ranges from melanges of riotous color -- house special egg or rice noodles topped with large chunks of broccoli, green pepper, cauliflower, carved carrots, tomato and various meats -- to simple and familiar chunks of Viet Nam Bistro steak marinated in teriyaki seasoning and grilled to a rare and tender juiciness. The simple and complex both are good; only the caramel pork was disastrously tough and dry, but that dish often is sweet, dull and dry, whatever the Vietnamese restaurant serving it. The other routine disappointment at Viet Nam Bistro is the rice, which is tomato-tinged and studded with scallion and egg, but tasteless and lukewarm.
Means include niceties, however, like flower-carved carrot garnishes, and the traditional fish sauce served in tiny petal shaped bowls. And the restaurant presents, at moderate prices, a choice of over two dozen main dishes stretching across stir-fried Chinese style dishes to curry to "pit barbecued" spiced chicken and a temptation called "perfumed mushrooms and steamed fish." Making my way through a varied selection, I found that seasoning is the talent of this chef. Even with occasional oversalting, greasiness or overcooking of skewered meats, the aromas and piquancies turn dinner into a treat for the senses.
For dessert, ignore my warnings against deep-frying. The fritters of fresh pineapple and banana are dipped in rum-and-vanilla-flavored batter and drizzled with warm honey. Greasiness could not detract from the sumptuousness. Caramel flan coconut, however, faded into tastelessness under its well caramelized syrup.
While the Viet Nam Bistro is stocked with a full bar and a small selection of beers and wines that include sake and Chinese wine, its non-alcoholic beverages are more intriguing, for you can order iced jasmine tea or homemade lemonade, even a drink called chanh muoi xi muoi, which translates as "Kosher Lemon-Up."
Lunch is a bargain at Viet Nam Bistro, with two-course specials for considerably under $5 and a la carte multi-course meals for little over $5. Most main courses at dinner are under $6. And though some main dishes are small portions, the enormous bowls of soup for $2 to $2.75 compensate.
And it's comforting to know that if, some weekend night, you indulge in dessert, you can dance it off.