Everyone's fond of referring to our shrinking planet as a global village, but it takes a place like Adele's to remind one of just how accustomed we've become to compressing times and places. Here we are, eating Vietnamese food in the tiny, high-ceilinged upstairs sitting room of a 19th-century Alexandria row house, looking through the macrame plant hangers in the window at the Rabbits and Toyotas in the street below, while the Saigonese owner-chef tells of her former life in Texas. Where are we? When are we? Don't ask. Once aware of the slightly surreal juxtaposing of cultures and centuries, just let it soak in and enjoy it as a rare bonus that comes with the excellent Vietnamese cooking and low prices.
Except for the check that arrives at the end, dinner at Adele's comes remarkably close to eating in someone's home.On a weekday night, for example, you may find the owner-hostess-chef escorting you upstairs to the cheery, plant-filled little dining room, explaining what needs explaining on the menu (which isn't much, since the menu is brief and the dishes' names are in English), taking your order, cooking your meal, helping to serve it and, between courses, managing to be on hand to discuss the dishes. In her spare time, she somehow helps take care of the little wine and cheese shop downstairs.
After the steaming, scented towels come the appetizers. One of the best is stuffed boneless chicken, medallions of white meat curled around a filling that combines chicken liver and cellophane noodles, among other things, topped by a hot, sweet, peanut-flavored sauce.
Imperial rolls, a kind of cold, rolled salad, are made of shrimp, pork, sprouts, lettuce and fresh coriander, wrapped in thin envelopes of rice paper, dipped at the table in the same peanut-based sauce and eaten with the fingers. This is a strange dish, ultra-bland without the sauce -- and the cold rice paper actually does taste like paper. But it's a light, cool, easily digested appetizer that makes sense in summer. (The garden rolls, similar but minus the shrimp, are even more bland.)
Adele's spring rolls, unlike practically everything else on the menu, are disappointing. Limp-crusted and oily, they have the character of Southeast Asian hush puppies.
The beef-anise soup is a happily complex creation, with layer upon layer of flavor and texture: flat, chewy, linguine-like noodles, beef chunks, crunchy vegetables, and just a light touch of anise and lemon grass. For more layers, there's a sauce applied at the table that adds salt, hot pepper, vinegar and garlic to the mix.
"Lightfare noodle" dishes, generally about the size of large appetizers, feature broiled meats served over cold noodles and vegetables, which leads to delightful combinations of spicy and bland, of soft and crisp, of hot and cold. In "pork skewers on rice noodles," for example, pork cubes are marinated in an anise-dominated blend of spices, broiled with bits of onion and served over a cold salad mixture that's dressed with a sweet, slightly hot sauce. Let the warm pork chops drop from the skewer onto the cold vegetables, and taste the delicious results of the mingling.
A standard Vietnamese restaurant dish, available here as either a "lightfare" appetizer or an entree, is shrimp molded around a stick of sugar cane and grilled, served with rice paper pancakes and more of the peanut-based sauce. The shrimp-cane combination is a happy union, with the shrimp gaining moisture and the cane (to be sucked separately) taking on a light shrimp essence.
The artistry at Adele's is most evident in the entrees. There's an impressive complexity in these dishes, with subtle layers of flavor reminiscent of the best in Indian cooking. No one spice dominates in any dish, and no two dishes overlap in flavor. Although there's a Thai influence at Adele's, the lemon grass is applied sparingly, and the sweet sauces aren't flat and over-sugared, a drawback at some Vietnamese restaurants.
Try the roast port Saigon-style, a colorful dish of pork chunks, vegetables, cashews and almonds in a hefty, sweet-hot sauce with peanut flavoring, garlic and fresh parsley. More deeply flavored and a bit less multidimensional is beef wrapped in grape leaves, something like Greek dolmades grown to the size of hot dogs and filled with densely pressed ground beef seasoned with what tastes like five-spice flavoring.
For even more flavor, there's beef sate on a stick, cubes of marinated beef heavily laced with fresh ginger in a sweet-tart sauce. At the top of the flavor-intensity list are the intricately balanced lemon grass curries (beef, chicken, shrimp), with a beautiful labyrinth of tastes that combines hot pepper, ginger, garlic, lemon grass, and what feels to the tongue like coconut milk.
There are milder dishes, too. Chicken with lemon grass and sesame, although a touch dry, is served in a soft broth that blends sesame flavor with the lightest finish of lemon grass. For those more comfortable with something familiar, sweet-and-sour pork is a good rendition, with an admirably unthickened, uncloying sauce. But the best, the most endearing of the mild dishes is roast pork five spice: moist, first-rate pork tenderloin strips with the most velvety of many-layered seasonings.
Skip the desserts, which are limited to plastic-wrapped French pastries, and canned lychees and longans.
A couple of final caveats. Adele's is a tiny, family-run business with a small kitchen, the kind of precariously balanced operation that can be swamped by just a few extra people at dinner. So it's a good idea to spread out the pressure by visiting on a week day if you can and by calling in advance. Plan on plenty of conversation time between courses. This is one-at-a-time, home-style cooking, and within that framework, the service is excellent. Come to think of it, there probably aren't many homes where the food is this good.
Open for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. D, MC, V. Reservations recommended. Ample street parking. Beer and wine only. Prices: Dinner entrees from $4.99 to $6.99. Typical dinner, with wine or beer, tax and tip, about $15 per person.