New Directions in Vietnamese Cuisine
Vietnamese cuisine is well represented in New Orleans, due largely to the population of immigrants from the former French colony that settled here in the 1970s and thereafter. The food traditions they brought with them spread slowly but steadily; these days it’s as easy to order a bowl of pho as a plate of red beans.
Chef Michael Gulotta garnered attention with a stint as executive chef at August, where he regularly worked Asian flavors into the ambitious, inventive menu at chef John Besh’s flagship restaurant. When he announced he was going to open a casual Vietnamese restaurant in Mid-City, eyebrows were raised. But this isn’t fusion cooking; this isn’t “homage;” this is an extremely talented chef cooking the food he loves and doing it justice.
The menu at MoPho has the standards you’ll find at all local Vietnamese restaurants – the rice noodle soup called pho; bun, the chilled noodle salad dish and banh mi, or as we like to call them, Vietnamese poor boys – and the restaurant does those standards proud. The broth in the pho is as good as you’ll find, and in addition to the flank, tendon and meatball you’d expect you can get oxtail, pork shoulder or belly and a red chile-braised tripe that may just convert you to the ingredient if you’re on the fence. You can also get cocks comb, headcheese or a number of vegetarian options such as roasted tofu, mushrooms and grilled greens.
Toppings on the bun are equally inventive; the Shakin’ bourbon beef cheeks are a play on bo luc lac or “shaking beef,” which gets its name from the method of cooking the beef – the tossing and flipping inherent to stir frying – with a dash of sweetness from bourbon that works perfectly in the dish. MoPho is also vegetarian-friendly and the slow roasted and crispy fried eggplant with tofu is just one example; you can get vegetarian pho and a banh mi with cast iron roast tofu with black bean mayonnaise.
Those banh mi are another example of how MoPho takes things in an inventive direction: you can find the sandwiches stuffed with fried shrimp and with Chisesi ham, roast duck with a banana barbecue sauce and fried P&J oysters with blue cheese, all of which are dressed with house-made mayonnaise, pickled vegetables and chicken liver paté a spreadable, spicy pork pâté. They are not authentic, but they’re delicious, and that’s what counts.
Gulotta and his sous chefs Blake Aguillard and Will Smith also have a rotating series of specials that as I write include a pan-roasted sheepshead with a cushaw squash purée, Satsuma, black cardamom and mizuna greens, and a cast-iron roast flank steak with red bliss potato home fries and a roasted pear and fall squash salad.
The only “special” that seems to stay on the menu for more than a month or three is the pepper jelly braised clams with lamb lardo, mint crispy shallot and annatto (also known as achiote) beignets. It is a wonderful dish that’s reminiscent of a Portuguese preparation of clams with sausage, but entirely of the milieu in which Gulotta is working at MoPho. It isn’t my favorite dish at the restaurant (that’s the sweet-sour-spicy-salty Thai-inspired som tam salad, which uses seasonal ingredients as well as any dish at any restaurant I’ve ever visited), but it’s absolutely one of the best clam dishes in town.
Speaking of which, you can’t come to MoPho without trying two appetizers: the crispy chicken wings with lemongrass and ginger and the fried oysters with mayo, radish and pickled blue cheese. The wings are addictive, as wings tend to be, but here they’ve got a sweet heat that sticks to your fingers and makes the old KFC adage true. The oysters are from P&J, and they’re fried perfectly; blue cheese isn’t exactly a Vietnamese ingredient, but there’s a lot of umami in it and it works so well with the rest of the menu that you’d think it was.
Drinks are an important part of the experience at MoPho; Shawna Donahue is in charge of the bar program and proudly calls herself a bartender rather than a mixologist. Along with consultant Mary Dixie, she and Jeff Gulotta have come up with a very interesting take on bubble teas. At MoPho they serve “Boba Teas of Extraordinary Magnitude,” which translates to bubble teas with a spike. The first one they came up with was the old fashioned, which Gulotta told me took a bit of tinkering before it was ready; the initial plan to soak the boba in alcohol just made them hard, but these days they’ve gotten it down, and in addition to the craft cocktails they put out at the restaurant the bubble tea cocktails are a hit.
MoPho, 514 City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoNola.com