All Hail Tiny Lacquered Birds

by Marina Chotzinoff

The first thing I thought walking into Vietnam Grill was that it looked exactly like Lao Wang Noodle House and I felt briefly alarmed that it was and what that might mean for my life and soup dumplings. The thing I noticed once we had been seated, beveraged and menued was how quiet it was. It was only 6:45, but the restaurant was 2/3 full and every person at every table was consumed with eating the food in front of them. The third thing I noticed after I became painfully aware of how loud our pretty calm conversation seemed in this silence, is that when the people at the rest of the tables came up for air, they were not speaking English. This intro made for a very promising dinner.

My mother had wondered if we shouldn’t save this restaurant for a time we could go with more grownups and, thus, try more dishes. But once I had the hankering, it was hard to not go. So we packed up the just-napped four year old and headed down South Federal. As an experienced eater-outer with a young child I came armed not only with a notebook and crayons, but also a couple addresses of other tried and true destinations nearby in the event the tiny space was too crowded. Lucky for us we arrived about 15 minutes before the place was packed. And since my daughter had seen a play about a mouse with a purple purse that day, she spent the majority of the time drawing mice in various costumes:

I had read some reviews and already knew I’d be ordering something called shrimp cupcakes and the garlic butter quail. After much discussion we added a fresh stuffed crepe. Our waitress told us that was plenty of food but because I can’t help myself we ordered some lemon grass frog legs. I don’t know if it was some muppets movie scene long ago when Kermit weeped over the thought of little frogs hopping about on crutches, but I have yet to ever try frog legs. But because this was to be a trusted place and there were several frog legs dishes on the Chef’s Specials section of the menu I decided to give it a go.

The ‘cupcakes’ arrived first. My mom had asked if the ’14′ next to the name meant we’d get 14 of them. That did not quite seem possible, but it was. A whole plate of what were really half portions of asian aebleskivers atop crispy fried rice noodles. The outside was slightly crisp, the inside custardy with a shrimp and green onions baked into the center. We were told to prepare them springroll style- folding them up into lettuce leaves with pickled carrots, daikon, cucumber, cilantro, sprouts, perilla and a sweet fish sauce for dipping. They were very good if only very very slightly in want of more salt. And that was probably my problem, not the cupcake’s.

Next arrived the fresh crepe which I did not quite understand at first. I was picturing the crispy crepe which is more of a batter folded over a mixture of diced bits like pork and bean sprouts. But it turned out to be more like fresh rice noodles rolled up like an omelette with vietnamese ham, mushrooms, bean sprouts and a really delicate, sweet and lovely sauce for pouring on top. It also had what I assume was some sort of toothsome chicken pâté sliced and placed around the edge of the plate. It also seemed to want just a splash of soy and some chili paste which, in turn, elevated it to a truly wonderful dish.

Finally, the item I was waiting for arrived. The quail. We had first been served a similar quail at our friends’ house in Oakland many years ago. Theirs was rubbed with some love and grilled and served with lime wedges and a mixture of salt and freshly ground pepper. I will forever remember this as it was my job that first time to grind grind grind the pepper. Thank god these people made good cocktails because my story-telling memory wants you to believe I spent half the dinner party grinding that pepper while sipping on fabulous cocktails long before the craft cocktail was so in vogue. And that quail was so good I felt no shame whatsoever demanding it the next two times we stopped in to visit. And it might be true, or not, but I will insist you believe that they forced the pepper grinding job on me time and again.

Fast forward many years. More years than anyone should have to live without eating grilled quail dipped in lime and salt and pepper. The platter arrived with maybe five quail split in two and lacquered in a dark brown glaze. They were circled with some pretty cucumbers and a total waste of hard winter tomatoes. Even if they were good summer tomatoes, I would not have wanted them on that dish. Alas. I picked up half a tiny quail and ripped off the tiny leg for my daughter who thought it was hilarious. She grabbed it, put most of it in her mouth and expertly worked the meat off with her teeth discarding the bone on her plate. I beamed with pride and anticipation and dipped my own piece into the slurry of lime juice, salt and pepper.

If I were pregnant, I feel certain this is a dish I would drive across town at random moments for. It’s something I might talk up to friends only to arrive and find it was just on the chef’s specials list, but not a daily dish, thereby sinking me into a depression. It’s a dish I will most definitely try to recreate, but it will never be as good. It was just a tremendously good dish and I can’t wait to go back and order it again.

Ignoring whatever the sweet lacquer was I will go straight to the caramely, nutty butter and toasted garlic which were perfection. The quick dip into the tangy lime with pungent pepper added a wonderful balance of tang and bite. The pile of tiny carcasses quickly grew on my plate and I briefly wondered if I was supposed to just crunch through all the bones. My mom shook her head quickly, mouth also full of quail. No.

Next up, and last up, were the frog legs. They were battered and, after freeing the tender meat from the dainty quail legs, appeared huge. For a moment I tried to picture what the whole frog might look like, but then just dug in. And I think I will be passing on frogs legs for another vast quantity of time unless someone can convince me otherwise. They were kind of dry, ever so slightly fishy and chickeny but bland. The sauce was good but was a mere oil slick over the afore-mentioned less than awesome meat. My daughter liked them though and it was worth it just to hear her tell her dad later that she had frog legs for dinner. I let my mom take the leftovers and asked for the check.

I was full, but happily so. The service was helpful, friendly and prompt. The atmosphere understated and cozy. At one point I asked my mom why one would bother with another Vietnames restaurant. I think I was under the seduction of the quail at the time…but it would be hard to go elsewhere and miss that dish. So for the NOW I will probably just return there ordering the quail + something new until someone can convince me to go elsewhere.

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