Vietnamese cuisine is a fascinating reflection of its history. Once a colony of China, there is a clear echo of that country's culinary traditions -- including the use of chopsticks -- in Vietnamese dining and cooking. That influence is much greater in the north, where soy sauce is sometimes used (instead of nuoc nam) and stir-frying is occasionally practiced (instead of the more ubiquitous simmering). Noodles, wet and dry, are more popular in the north, though eaten throughout the country. Rice, the long-grain variety, is the main staple. Northern cooks, like their Chinese inspirations, use a lot of black pepper for heat, instead of the chilies favored in the south. And beef is popular there, as it was for the Mongolians who invaded the country in the 13th century.
Apart from the city's pho shops, which sell the delectable noodle soups developed in the north, most of the Vietnamese cooking in Atlanta is from the central and southern regions. The most elaborate cooking was developed in the royal courts of Hue, the former imperial city in the country's mountainous central region. There, produce is abundant. In the tropical southern region, many more spices, including chilies, are grown than in the north. Fruit also flavors some southern dishes, as does coconut milk now and then.
All of this adds up to a very healthy cuisine featuring startling flavors: mint leaves, ginger, garlic, basil, green onions, coriander, star anise, black pepper, vinegars, fish sauces and a few herbs I've never been able to identify, including an obnoxious one that Wayne and I nicknamed "Death in the Mouth." Meats and seafood are common in the cuisine but typically they function as virtual condiments. Thus a big bowl of vermicelli is full of herbs and vegetables, topped with, for example, a relatively small portion of grilled shrimp or deliciously marinated pork.
Understand, too, that Vietnam was colonized from the 16th to 20th centuries by the French. So the country's cuisine shows influences from France too. Thus a baguette smeared with pate and stuffed with herbs is a common street snack.
I'm not sure why Vietnamese cooking has, unlike Thai, remained so relatively marginalized to the city's ethnic districts, like Buford Highway and, lately, Forest Park. An attempt to mainstream the cuisine by accenting its French influences emerged recently with the opening of Green Papaya (3000 Windy Hill Road, Marietta, 770-984-1177) in the same strip mall that contains the terrific Hashi Guchi sushi bar.
Green Papaya's owners, Suong Ives and her American partner Mikel Estes, call their restaurant a Vietnamese French bistro. Although I would like to give their venture whole-hearted support, because the couple is so hospitable, one meal there was an extreme disappointment. I'm not belaboring the issue of authenticity with which I tormented myself in this space last week relative to Chinese cuisine. I've had plenty of inventive French-Vietnamese cooking that pushes the envelope. Indochine on Lafayette in New York, for example, continues to serve a creative fusion that arguably began the popularization of Vietnamese dining in America. Remember when it was Bianca Jagger's fave place to hang?
Green Papaya is located in a former hot dog restaurant. Estes has turned the place into a rather placeless bistro. A fountain is in the center of the room. Lattice covers the broadly windowed space and paintings by community artists are hung everywhere. There's a tiny bar but the restaurant does not have a liquor license, though beer and wine are available.
We started with a sample platter of appetizers, the Tour de Green Papaya ($10.95). Summer rolls had decent flavor but were poorly made. In fact, the rice paper was torn and the shrimp had fallen out of one of the rolls. Herbs were too mild. Peanut sauce was served in a flat little dish that made dipping impossible without shoving the stuff onto the table. Spring rolls, the cigarette-sized type, were tasty, however. A decent fish sauce was on the side but I'd love to have had a few herbs to wrap the rolls.
The dish also included "water buffalo wings" -- chicken wings marinated in lemongrass and soy sauce, then grilled and coated in a very sweet chili sauce. Our "tour" also included a separate dish of very French country pate, served with grapes, a round of goat cheese and a sliced baguette. By the time we finished this huge serving of starter food, we agreed that the pate was the best of the appetizers.
We also ordered the signature Green Papaya salad ($6.95), which we thoroughly enjoyed. The restaurant shreds fresh papayas and tops them with herbs -- again, too understated -- and roasted peanuts, along with chewy five-spiced beef, which may have been my favorite taste the entire evening.
Entrees were very disappointing. Wayne's halibut, simmered in red wine and lemongrass, was coated with crushed green peas and wasabi powder ($16.95). We could not discern a definitive inspiration for the dish. The waiter told us the restaurant previously employed a Thai chef who put the halibut on the menu. Whatever, it was grim. The fish had turned mushy, inedible to my palate, and the green pea wasabi coating was bitter.
My own entree was just as disappointing. I ordered boneless pork chops "caramelized in our secret seasonings" ($12.95). I assumed they would be similar to the grilled or hot pot-cooked pork I've eaten in many Vietnamese restaurants. Instead, they were inedibly seasoned and served rather rare. Do not order them. I mean it!
Perhaps we just ordered the wrong dishes? I've received several e-mails from people who like Green Papaya, urging me to try it. But this is a menu without focus trying to be all things to all people in Marietta. There's promise here, perhaps. Maybe paring the menu and introducing one or two specials would help.
When I complained all the way to the car about the meal, Wayne urged me to remember that we're accustomed to eating at "extraordinary" Vietnamese restaurants like Bien Thuy (5095 Buford Highway, 404-454-9046), whose owner has published two cookbooks. Bien Thuy remains my favorite in Atlanta and offers some exotic off-the-menu dishes -- like one made with enormous oysters -- that you won't find anywhere else in the city. Octopus is always well prepared here and the spring rolls, always served with a huge plate of herbs, have no comparison. There is also a generous use of fruit in many dishes here.
Saigon Cafe (3675 Satellite Blvd., Duluth, 770-232-5070) has become very popular recently. The menu is mainly traditional pho but there are some interesting rice dishes, including a few that pay homage to Vietnam's Chinese influences, including a particular taste for Cantonese-style dishes.
Quan Vy Da (4454 Jonesboro Road, Forest Park, 404-608-0034) is one of the most interesting of the newer Vietnamese restaurants because it focuses on the cuisine of the mountainous central zone. Here you will find especially exotic dishes of the type served in Hue, including an odd porridge topped with shrimp powder and fried pork skin.
Sandwiches, bahn mi, at Quan Vy Da are quite popular, but those of us who don't want to commute to Forest Park and live in town are gobbling up the Vietnamese sandwiches at Pangaea (1082 Huff Road, 404-350-8787) on the city's west side. My favorite is the lemongrass-marinated pork.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at email@example.com