I’m breaking free from that habit of ordering “the usual” when it comes to what I call, “specific country cuisine.” To wit: sushi, tempura, and katsudon when ordering Japanese; kimchi and bulgogi when ordering Korean; dimsum, sweet and sour pork, and Yang Chow fried rice for Chinese; and the ultimate am-so-sick-of-this combination — putanesca and Quattro formaggio pizza (or some such pizza-pasta combination) when eating Italian. Boring.
So on my visit to Zao, Manila’s newest and only Vietnamese bistro, I tell owner Kay Alcantara, “I’d like to try something new please, aside from ”˜the usual.’” When it comes to Vietnamese, “the usual” here are the spring rolls ”“ either fresh or fried ”“ and the pomelo salad. Kay seems relieved when I tell her my request. “On weekends, the kitchen sends out about 50 orders of the spring rolls, and that pomelo salad … everyone orders the pomelo salad. There are tables that are ordering the same things.” Again, boring much?
Still, to embark on a Vietnamese meal is sacrilegious without starting with those fresh spring rolls (P165) plump with shrimps, glass noodles, bean sprouts, and basil leaves in rice-paper wrappers, the resultant combination a visual mirror-likeness to flowers pressed against glass. The traditional accompaniment is a peanut dipping sauce (nuoc leo) made by mixing nuoc mam with chicken broth and hoisin Sauce then garnishing with slivers of chilies, garlic, and crushed roasted peanuts. At once salty and sweet, it possesses piquancy on several levels.
Many if not all of the dishes to follow are accompanied by nuoc mam, the single most important sauce of Vietnamese cuisine. Made with white sugar, lime or lemon juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce (patis), water, and garlic. Add some sliced red chili (siling labuyo) and it’s called nuoc cham. It’s that simply put together, but so headily intoxicating is it that I can’t seem to get enough of it. I’m dipping all my spring rolls into it and I just about pour an entire dipping bowl’s worth into my pho. Frankly, I’d like to steal a bottle of the stuff from the kitchen and get drunk in a corner somewhere with it.
While Vietnamese cuisine relies on fresh vegetables and understated seasonings, its cooking also reflects its Chinese and French influences with numerous regional differences; the south has plenty of fresh seafood and in the colder north, meals are heartier with lots of beef, pork, and chicken as in the Zao Grilled Platter (P295). I’m finding it difficult to dip the meat into the tiny dipping bowl. My objective after all, is to get as much of the nuoc mam onto the succulent meat which is rich and smoky. A bite or two of the pickled vegetables (carrots, radish, and lettuce) cool down my heated-up palate.
Another dish I enjoy ”“ and one that more people need to know about ”“ are the Barbeque Spareribs (P195) marinated in a spice mixture and aromatic herbs. Eaten alone, it doesn’t taste very different to the grilled liempo that Filipinos know, but it transforms when doused with that nuoc mam. (My eating trend here is screamingly obvious.)
Why call Zao a Vietnamese bistro? Citing her perception of Vietnamese restaurants as “holes in the wall,” Kay says, “… I wanted to put a little sophistication into it and the bistro part comes in serving comfort food in a nice setting.” Together with husband Conrad, the couple is dedicated to serving Vietnamese staples while simultaneously injecting the cuisine with their individual touch. As owners also of Trio and Pasto, the couple has made a leap from Italian to Vietnamese food. Noticing a dearth in restaurants of the latter, Kay articulates her desire to get her customers to try different things. Amen to that. And as for that catchy name, Zao, I’m told that it’s the name of a Northern Vietnam tribe. “Short, easy recall,” laughs Kay.
Soup is one of Vietnam’s traditional offerings, with Hanoi’s regional soup, pho, being the most famous. It’s the only Vietnamese dish that’s served in individual portions since all other dishes are served family-style. There are enough pho choices for each day of the week, but today I’m trying the Meatball Pho (P155) whose meatballs have the distinctive chewiness of fish balls. I also dip my spoon into the Tenderloin Pho (P195), the meat of which is sliced so thinly, it all but melts in my mouth. Lengthy cooking and careful seasoning produce the beef broth that is poured over the rice noodles. Beef bones are boiled and then simmered for hours, the incessant heat coaxing out every last vestige of flavor. At once earthy and beefy but light and perfumed with cilantro, this soup is the salve that soothes. Change the soup’s flavor profile by adding the accompanying fresh green herbs, bean sprouts, lime, and chilies (and that nuoc mam too), and prepare to be revivified. It’s no wonder that Vietnamese cuisine is called the true ‘light cuisine’ of Asia.
Vietnamese cuisine is illustrative of food that’s subtle, diverse, and sophisticated ”“ all at once. It’s a union of the techniques of Chinese cooking, the ethereal accents of French finesse, and the zing of some of the herbs and spices of India. Perhaps no other dish I try today at Zao is more a model of all those qualities than the Pan-Fried Pomfret With Tamarind Sauce (P325). Local pampano fried ”˜til crispy basks in a tamarind sauce that’s made from scratch and simmered endlessly. An almost gleaming brown, its sour-tart complexity is amped up with garlic and cilantro, the perfect foil to the tender flesh. This is a lively and artfully composed dish.
It’s the above-described dish that encapsulates Kay’s future plans for Zao. “I’ll be introducing ”˜bistro specialties’ like steaks with typically Vietnamese sauces like tamarind and curry, as well as offering crispy tofu fries with three dipping sauces ”“ peanut-hoisin, tamarind, and nuoc mam. It’s my way of reinterpreting Vietnamese cuisine.”
I almost forget all about the Water Spinach With Tofu Stir-Fried With Garlic And Scallions (P145). Observant readers might claim this is just adobong kangkong, but it’s infinitely lighter than the Filipino version. The chunks of tofu are dredged and fried just until puffed ”“ when bitten into, they pop and burst, oozing a salty sauce.
Of course every Vietnamese meal must end with the requisite Vietnamese coffee (P65). Made with a Vietnamese filter, it’s a small coffee pot that looks like a hat and sits atop the coffee cup. Inside the filter is a chamber for ground coffee beans and hot water. The coffee is delivered to table with the filter attached to the coffee cup, at the bottom of which lies a thick swath of condensed milk. Because the coffee takes its sweet time to drip, I catch my breath and watch the murky liquid trickle into the glass. The juxtaposition of brown on white is startling ”“ and tempting ”“ and the glass’ sides are starting to steam up just as my mouth begins to water. A real treat for those who like their coffee strong and sweet (me! me!) this hot beverage is a velvety and scintillating finish to a superlative Vietnamese meal.
Zao Vietnamese Bistro
Unit 1C16 Serendra,
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig