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Holding out for more authentic Vietnamese at Nam

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The opening of MF Sushibar on Ponce was a godsend for the city's purists. The trendily decorated restaurant does not compromise its function by offering, say, tempura and teriyaki for squeamish folks dragged to a sushi bar by their more adventurous friends. It's sushi and sushi only there.

One reasonably expects similar devotion to authenticity at Nam (931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997), which the owners of MF opened a month ago at Midtown Promenade in the location vacated by Zoe's. Heritage would be no excuse for anything less than authentic because owner Alex Kinjo is of mixed Japanese and Vietnamese parentage.

And yet Nam, though quite a competent restaurant, does not adhere to authentic flavors with the same fidelity that MF does. Indeed, following my first meal, I was so struck by the blandness of a plate of scallops stir-fried with Asian long beans, that I complained to my server. After she interviewed me at length about what I missed -- the flavor of fish sauce and chilies, the use of powerful herbs -- she confided, "Well, to be truthful, the staff feels the same way but they are trying to appeal to the most people they can."

"Don't do that!" I exclaimed. Two restaurants that attempt to mainstream Vietnamese food have opened recently and do the same thing. I've never taken anyone to super-authentic Bien Thuy who didn't become a fan of the cuisine.

Nam is not all bland. A second visit, in fact, turned up better food. A rice-flour pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and scallions was worthy of Bien Thuy and served with fish sauce and lettuce in which to wrap chunks of the appetizer. The server, remembering me, also brought me some hot chili sauce to spike the fish sauce.

A salad of shredded green mango with mint leaves and crushed peanuts, topped with grilled shrimp, was also very pleasingly intense. A starter from my first visit, sauteed baby clams, was astonishingly insipid though. The clams are served with big, curvaceous sesame crackers on which to heap them. It's clever, but you get nothing but the mild taste of the clams.

An entree of lemongrass tofu with scallions and onions couldn't have been cooked better. The big chunks of tofu were crispy on the outside, creamy inside. But we never found a single piece of lemongrass. Nor did we taste it. The most authentic dish we sampled was chicken cooked in a clay pot with chilies and onions. Pork, similarly cooked, is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. The meat is caramelized by cooking in the pot with fish sauce, that, combined with the meat's juices, makes a very salty, piquant sauce. Our server told us that grouper cooked in the same way is a best seller.

The decor is ... hmmm. Imagine white gauze table dividers, red ceiling lights, white walls, red anthuriums and roses, white calla lilies, a candlelit hall to the restrooms and banners featuring portraits of Asian women. The staff, as Wayne put it, looks like angels floating around the room. They are all gorgeous young women in white dresses with relentless smiles.

I like the place but it's going to have to become more authentic for me to visit often -- especially when entrees hover around $15 each.

Creative Loafing

I had quite a flashback when I visited Highland Bakery (655 Highland Ave., 404-586-0772) recently. Once upon a time I lived with a man who not only baked his own bread but convinced the proprietor of an old river mill in rural South Carolina to stone-grind whole-wheat flour for him. We'd carry the grain to the mill and go pick blackberries while the stuff underwent its transformation.

The owners of Highland Bakery are grinding their own flour out of chemical-free grains from Montana in a wooden mill on the premises. The resulting bread is aromatic and features a springy but firm texture that makes you want to put the loaf -- whether spelt or sourdough -- against your cheek and sigh.

The bakery also includes a cafe. I haven't tried breakfast though I have tried a yummy cinnamon roll that, believe me, is a better choice than a bagel. The latter is an oddity I won't go near again. Three sandwiches are available. The Memphis is barbecued pork that is way too sweet for my taste but probably just dandy for most Southerners. It's served with coleslaw on a Kaiser roll. Much better is the herb-roasted turkey I had on cranberry-walnut bread with avocados, tomato, lettuce greens and apricot-curry mayo. I haven't tried the one made with grilled veggies. Nor have I tried the homemade soups served in a bread bowl -- because I'd rather be set on fire than eat soup in a bread bowl.

The bakery is located in a loft conversion of the original Highland Bakery and is a stone's throw from Roman Lily Cafe. The brick interior with big windows is cozy and light-filled -- thoroughly urbane and not the least bit hippy-dippy, which one typically expects of the goo-goo-eyed purveyors of wholesome foods.

Here and there

Zifty.com is a new local online delivery service opened recently by Todd Miller, a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech. Along with DVDs, chapstick and emergency condoms, Miller is offering food from a few restaurants including Ami, Celebrity Cafe, Baan Rao, Cherry, Raging Burrito, Jake's and Santino's. Order online or call 404-817-3345 ...

From Cristina Stanfill: "Cliff, Cliff, Cliff: Years I have been reading your words of wisdom and wit (and some not so wise and witty) and today I am shocked for the first time ... Starbucks? Starbucks at Ansley? There is a perfectly good Aurora Coffee right across the street where they serve vastly superior coffee and tasty pastries and Arden's Garden juices. How could you? We must support our local businesses or all we'll have is Starbucks and Moe's. Then Karl Rove will have won."

Busted. It's true the coffee is far better at Aurora but the creature comforts, including parking and an Internet connection, excel at Starbucks. Shoot me.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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