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A Pleasant Reminder From Central Vietnam

Review* The aroma and tang at Fountain Valley's Da Lat Bistro brings one gourmet back to a tasty first encounter.

April 04, 2002|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I first had Vietnamese food about 20 years ago. I've long since forgotten the name of the restaurant and most of the specifics of the meal, but certain flavor memories remain. Something aromatic rose like a cloud from my palate to my sinuses. Something creamy but subtly pungent made my tongue tingle. The food was soft when I bit into it but loaded with textural surprises, a sort of edible exploding cigar.

This exotic vocabulary of flavors was, at the time, completely unfamiliar to me, but I've been hoping to re-create that meal ever since. And now I finally have, at Da Lat Bistro in Fountain Valley.

I've got nothing against pho, which can be found in abundance throughout Southern California, but Da Lat (though it does serve pho) specializes in the cuisine of central Vietnam, where whispers of Indian, Chinese, Thai and French cooking find their way onto the plate. In some ways, though, the food is more subtle than any of its influences.

With its walls covered with bamboo matting and its bar hooded in thatch, Da Lat is spacious and laid-back, evoking a vague tropical feeling, something between Maui and Malaysia. It serves no tropical drinks, just beer and wine, but if you want something cool and refreshing, try the nonalcoholic drink made from "pennyworth" herb. The prices are quite reasonable and the quality of the food is impressively consistent.

There are a number of intriguing appetizers, and it's easy to stuff yourself on them if you don't watch out. One of my favorites is the shrimp salad. A hollowed-out, frozen pineapple half is filled with cold grilled shrimp, white fish and marinated calamari interspersed with wisps of red cabbage, carrots and lotus root shoots, generously garnished with chopped, golden-fried shallots.

The beef salad is a sort of beef tartare, though it helps if you've acquired a taste for the pungent Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam because the ground beef is marinated in it before being mixed with onions and strips of red and green bell peppers.

Among other appetizers, the crispy chicken wings arrive a little on the soggy side, but they're quite flavorful, and the spring rolls, filled with savory pork and shrimp scented with basil, are wonderful. Fish cakes are small, densely packed fingers of ground fish, deep-fried and pleasingly chewy.

If you're up for a feast, order the bo 7 mon, the well-known seven-course beef extravaganza. It starts with the beef salad and follows with a medley of bovine delights. Beef in vinegar, for example, is fondue, Indochina style: Thin slices of raw beef are cooked in a boiling caldron of vinegar, then wrapped in some of the aromatic herbs (mint, basil, perilla, polygonum) that accompany many of the dishes. There are also grilled beef, a beef meatball, beef with lettuce and beef in rice soup, but the most interesting is ground, spiced beef tightly wrapped in green-purple polygonum leaves, which gives it a savory, aromatic quality faintly nutty with a suggestion of mint.

That, I must admit, is about as much beef as even the star of a "real meat for real people" commercial could consume. Good as it is, my affections lie with the seafood. Ca nuong, a whole grilled catfish (you can choose among three sizes of fish ) is fit for a wedding banquet. The flesh is moist and juicy, skin nicely charred and thickly strewn with ground peanuts, fried garlic and shallots. The protocol for devouring this beauty is to wrap hunks of the fish in lettuce and herbs.

I also like cha ca thang long, grilled snapper in a very mild but flavorful curry sauce and flecked with dill. A more aggressive curry sauce is used on frog-leg saute, a spice lover's dream; the frog is mostly a vehicle for the curry, which is flecked with pieces of chewy black mushrooms.

The hot pot with seafood is another fondue-like arrangement, with clams, white fish, shrimp and red snapper. You simmer them to your taste into a pot of broth that's a lot like hot-and-sour soup, but with too much lemongrass for my taste. Better is "clam butter stew," clams in their shells swimming in a garlicky (and buttery) fish broth nicely spiked with basil.

Fresh herbs, sublime curry, spring rolls--having retraced my steps through two meals at Da Lat, the Vietnamese cuisine I first enjoyed in New York is seemingly served again.

*

Da Lat is moderate. Appetizers run $5.95 to $9.95, noodle and rice dishes $4.95 to $5.95, entrees $12.95 to $14.95. Large entrees for two or more are $14.95 to $42.95. Beer and wine.

Da Lat Bistro, 16525 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 839-8338. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

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