Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations accepted AE, DC, MC, V. Prices: At dinner, appetizers $4 to $5.50, main dishes $7.50 to $14. Full dinner with house wine, tax and tip about $20 a person.
Expect the unexpected.
Although the facade would not turn your head, East Wind's interior looks luxurious and tastefully restrained. Alexandria is known for its European and American restaurants, yet East Wind is Vietnamese. Vietnamese restaurants are most frequently casual and inexpensive; East Wind is formal and rather expensive, its $10 noodle dishes matching in price downtown's northern Italian pastas.
This is a restaurant in which to discover the unexpected and to understand the mystique of Vietnamese cooking, the subtle intricacy that captures the best of its French and Chinese inheritance.
If you expect an Oriental restaurant to be decorated with red fringed lanterns, East Wind will take you by surprise, for its walls are horizontal pine planks buffed to a shine, with color photos and a mural of Vietnamese villagers. The few fans and coolie hats are positioned for color and geometry rather than to identify the setting as Oriental. Brown and gold tableclothes are centered with exceptionally handsome pottery vases filled with bright and exotic flowers.
Following in the footsteps of Georgetown's Germaine's and Chez Maria, East Wind is attentive to its wine list; the house wines are Folonari at $8 a carafe, and the list includes reasonably priced and highly drinkable selections such as the vouvray at $11. The beer list also is choice, though $2.25 for some imports is high. And the bar makes the freshest-tasting whisky sour you could wish, as well as fresh lemonade and orange juice.
Thus, East Wind establishes itself as meant for special evenings out. The service -- adept, smooth and well-paced -- is in tune with its style, the waiters communicative without being conversational.
And the food is no less worthy of compliments.
Start with grilled pork or beef on skewers, or shrimp on sugar cane; either is enough to share for an appetizer, and should be at $4 to $5.50. The skewered meats are thinly sliced, but grilled quickly so that their surface is fragrant and crisp but the meat remains juicy. Besides being marinated in a thick sweetened Vietnamese counterpart to soy sauce, the meats are topped with chopped peanuts and crunchy bits of onion.
The shrimp is pounded to a paste with garlic and Vietnamese fish sauce, then wrapped around sugar cane before grilling so a faint sweetness and perfume permeates the cloud-like shrimp paste. The most popular Vietnamese appetizer, the rice-paper-wrapped fired cha gio, are too bland; dipping them into peppered and sweetened fish sauce helps, but they still don't compete with the other two.
Vietnamese soups show the art of contrast, sweet and tart with a fiery kick, soft noodles and crisp shreds of nearly raw vegetables, long-simmered broths with a last-minute addition of raw beef or fish to cook in the residual heat. Try the pho, a beef soup from the north flavored with black pepper and anise, or fishermen's soup or Saigon soup from the south. But don't expect more from a Vietnamese asparagus and crabmeat soup than a vapid brew of canned ingredients.
Some of the appetizers are expanded for main courses: skewered pork tops the slippery, glutinous rice pancakes, for instance. And Golden Coins is skewers of pork and chicken chuncks, also sweet and salty, crusty from a charcoal grilling, but alternated with green peppers, onions and pineapple -- delicious, if too dry. Vietnamese chicken curry has the fire of the Indian version, but the sweetness of coconut milk and a creamy, subtle flavor. Steamed fish though better when the fish turns out to be rockfish than when it is flounder, is an elegant presentation boned at the table, covered with another sweet-hot sauce, but quite different from the curry or any other of the sauces. This one is absorbed by transparent noodles and tossed with black mushrooms, tree-ear fungus and other vegetables.
Whatever the main dish -- beef or chicken sauteed with vegetables, shrimp or stuffed squid -- the presentation is colorful, the portion large, the seasoning intricate. But watch for duplications in ordering, for the meat-stuffed squid duplicates the stuffing of the cho gio and the sauce of the Mekong shrimp, the shrimp on crab claw, is just a variation of the shrimp on sugar cane; many of the skewered meats are similar in their marinades.
We have hit a night when the shrimp were tough, the chicken dry and the fish overcooked. But the opposite is more typical, and East Wind at its best is a parade of exotic and mysterious flavors, brilliant colors and a string of surprises in the textures and aromas.
The East Wind is a breath of fresh air.