The Atlanta Magazine
By Christiane Lauterbach: December 2003
Vietnamese restaurants in the Atlanta area have, until recently, had little appeal for mainstream diners. Most of the ones we know have been dark, smoky and difficult in terms of service and communication. These problems have perhaps influenced our perception of a cuisine that is actually one of the lightest and most fragrant in the world. Vietnam is home to beautiful and delicate meals that differ greatly from the richer dishes that are prepared in Thai or Chinese kitchens.
Style and substance form an unbreakable bond at Nam, a tiny but important new restaurant, the first in Atlanta that truly captures the romance, exquisite food culture and sultry glamour of Vietnam. It is an atmospheric, intimate little spot with beautifully groomed young servers and food that combines the best of Vietnamese traditions with the best of what the entrepreneurial family of owner Alex Kinjo has learned living in America. The kitchen uses gorgeous ingredients in the service of highly authentic flavors. The sexy, loungy atmosphere reflects the younger family’s absorption of U.S. culture while the menu hearkens to the old country, but with a contemporary twist.
After opening the super-cool MF Sushibar with his brother Chris “Magic Fingers” and beating the odds in a then-unthinkable location, Kinjo decided to embark upon this greater challenge: open a Vietnamese restaurant for their mother, who brought the family out of Saigon in 1979, and honor his ancestry in a way that would defy all expectations. Like an Asian musketeer, Kinjo strongly believes “all for one and one for all ” ; after all, respect for parents and ancestors is one of the key virtues in Vietnam.
Instead of disco balls and wall-to-wall mirrors (both common elements in Buford Highway’s Vietnamese cafes), Nam features lights that resemble lotus blossoms and long silvery cylinders mirroring the red uplighting circling the room. Fluttering, pure-white curtains divide the banquette into several small seat- ing areas. The kitchen hides behind a curvy partition pierced with one perfect narrow window. And on each table, a bud vase filled with red glass pebbles displays a single red anthurium.
Kinjo’s signature art (pencil drawings of willowy young women with long, provocative hair) has been printed on floor-to-ceiling banners mounted in front of the main wall, and when the universally stunning young Asian waitresses gracefully float by in their shell-pink or perfect white ao dai (the traditional slit tunic and pants), they seem like three-dimensional renditions of the same drawings.
All this intensity and wizardry would be nothing without mom’s culinary experience and savoir-faire. Anh Hoang is from a generation in which everyone learned to cook. At one point, the whole family, 14 strong, lived together in two rooms, but they made their way in the world, taking up jobs as shrimpers, glass- blowers, hairstylists, designers and sushi chefs. Hoang previously owned a New Orleans restaurant, a sim- ple place that did not feature the farm-raised striped bass, Kobe beef and Alsatian Rieslings her son Alex would eventually insist on having on the menu at Nam.
Most people will be reasonably familiar with cha gio (crispy “imperial rolls” tightly packed with glass noo- dles, shrimp, pork and wood ear mushrooms) and pho (rich beef or chicken broths with rice noodles, meat and fresh herbs, featured only on the lunch menu). But Mrs. Hoang and her kitchen staff go far beyond the usual noodle shop repertoire, and many of Nam’s specialties are rarely seen outside of home kitchens. Almost fat-free, subtle, easy to digest and enveloped in a clear aroma of nuoc mam (a ferment- ed fish sauce that, diluted with water, sugar, lime juice and chilies, becomes nuoc cham), the typical dish- es from Saigon or Hue, the former imperial capital, have a magic of their own.
The fun, interactive nature of the food (one is forever dipping, wrapping, unwrapping) and the delicacy of flavors from the use of ingredients such as ginger, black pepper, soybean and shrimp pastes, mint leaves, sawleaf herb and lime as seasoning agents makes each meal a bewitching adventure. Banh nam steamed in banana leaves resemble miniature flat tamales made of rice flour topped with ground pork, shrimp and wood ear mushrooms. Banh beo are small rice cakes with ground shrimp and scallions. When you order ground shrimp grilled on sugarcane or ban xeo-a rice-flour and coconut milk crepe stuffed with bean sprouts, scallions, pork and shrimp-you must wrap them in lettuce leaves and dip them into nuoc cham.
Nam will lead to stunning discoveries such as ground beef seasoned with lemongrass and turmeric and grilled in la lot (wild betel) leaves served with ginger fish sauce; salads made with green papaya or sour green mango; soups that use fish heads and tofu or crab and asparagus; whole striped bass steamed with ground pork, wood ear mushrooms, and lily buds inside an opo squash wrapped in banana leaves; “shak- ing” cubed filet mignon wok-fried for a split-second with chopped garlic and onions; catfish skewers buried in dill; and an amazing caramelized chicken hot pot fragrant with chilies and onions.
Beware of expensive ingredients if you are dining on a budget (such as Kobe beef or Dungeness crabs), or the ones in some of the first-rate specials they introduce each week on the menu.
Vegetarians will find only a few suitable items, but choices such as the magnificent grilled Japanese egg- plants with garlic sauce, the crispy lemongrass tofu with scallions, onions and ginger fish sauce, and the pleasantly sour water spinach stir-fried with garlic and Vietnamese shrimp paste will provide an idea of the cuisine and its intricacies.
For the wine, Kinjo turned to a consultant who worked with Slanted Door in San Francisco, a landmark restaurant that propelled Vietnamese food into the world of fine dining. Nam wrestled with the concept of dessert (it now serves sweet yellow beans topped with coconut cream in elegant footed cups) and relied mostly on its phenomenally strong and smooth ca phe sua da (dark-roast coffee slowly dripped over sweetened condensed milk and transferred to a glass of ice) to satisfy the customer’s sweets cravings.
The best part of Nam is the way it reflects Kinjo’s belief in himself and his mother as people who can earn respect for their culture and their family while staying true to a vision. The restaurant won’t talk down to its audience or censor itself, and it reaps the admiration it deserves for such courage and talent.