The answer is: maybe. It depends on your expectations and your previous experiences with authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Personally, I love Vietnamese food, but I am a sucker for the authentic and the untainted. There is a lot to be said for the art of passing down recipes from one generation to the next and the genuine love of cooking for one’s family and friends. Just as we emerged from the sea and evolved, our recipes have followed suit and developed along with our DNA. Just as Michael Phelps feels at ease and excels in the pool, certain chefs possess the same qualities in the kitchen. They attempt to preserve the genuine nature of their family’s recipes while enhancing their flavor’s DNA through classic training and imagination.
If you are one to look for the authentic and you dare to venture away from this city’s culinary epicenter, then your final destination for Vietnamese cuisine should undoubtedly land you in Eden Center, VA. For two years I lived in Arlington, VA and had the pleasure of experiencing Vietnamese cooking the way it is presumably prepared in its country of origin. Infused with some traditional French culinary techniques, Vietnamese cuisine takes on a life of the fresh, the untamed and the honest. Spring rolls wrapped in rice paper, Pho and grilled whole fish are the foundation of this most delicious world.
So, what does this city have to offer as the option for mid-priced Vietnamese cuisine? After hours of research and countless reconsideration, my girlfriend and I decided to visit Nam in Tribeca. The restaurant is easily identified by bamboo like greenery surrounding the entry way and you are quickly welcomed by a warm feeling and extremely high ceilings, which are common in this part of the city. The restaurant has anywhere from 15 to 20 tables, which are generously spaced and comfortably positioned throughout the space. The walls are accented with circular photographs of past generations, which presumably lead to the culinary evolution of its menu. The rear left corner of the restaurant features the best two person table and is decorated with bamboo and illuminated with soft yellow lighting. The restaurant lacks bar seating, but if you arrive too early for your reservation, you can always catch a pint at the pub right across the street.
Be prepared for a limited wine list and a menu stripped down to the interpretive staples of Vietnamese cooking. We started with grilled prawn wrapped in rice paper with cucumber, basil, peanut sauce, grilled calamari over cucumber, tomato, mixed lettuce, tamarind vinaigrette and shrimp dumplings wrapped in banana leaves. The prawns and calamari were grilled with an amazing smoky flavor and the salad had just enough heat to complete the dish. The shrimp dumplings on the other hand, although a highly successful and satisfying dish lacked the necessary heat and left your brain searching for that missing ingredient. For an entre, I ordered the crispy red snapper in chili lime sauce and my girlfriend had the steamed sea bass. Let’s start with the good first, the steamed bass was absolutely delicious and without a doubt a must to try if dining at the Nam. The fish was not mushy, flaky and the accompanying sauce was a success on every level. The crispy red snapper on the hand brings me back to my original point of “the authentic” in modern cuisine. The Nam’s interpretation of the crispy red snapper, although with admittedly decent taste qualities should make all of chefs in the black and white photographs previously mentioned close their eyes and turn the other way. The chili sauce was too sweet and didn’t offer even a hint to chilies or any heat for that matter. The red snapped was deboned, de-headed and de-finned, in other words it might as well have been a filet. To serve a filet as the centerpiece of this classic dish is criminal. The flavor was discarded as common trash, this dish’s DNA was eradicated and the memories of the genuine and the true forgotten.
In conclusion, I would like to say that Nam is a great place to dine if you’re looking for good food, but not for the authentic and the genuine. In my opinion, chefs who were so cleverly presented on the walls of this cozy restaurant would not recognize the menu or the techniques that that were used to prepare it. This restaurant is without a doubt a pleasure to visit, but it’s not the place that it attempts to be.