Vietnam may be about to drown in a tsunami of Coke, but its great export to these shores — an ancient Asian cuisine overlaid with French sophistication — is safely established in places like Saigon Saigon. It's an exotic flower on Valencia Street's restaurant row that offers first-rate Vietnamese cooking in an austerely elegant setting at eye-poppingly low prices. It's an ethnic restaurant with style instead of linoleum, and the precise, attentive service of restaurants that cost twice as much.
The Indochinese peninsula borders both China and India, and its food reflects the influence of those two huge, old civilizations. From China comes the wok and the love of pork and gingery stir-fry with steamed rice, while India contributes a wealth of spices. Coconut milk and lemon grass echo the flavors of neighboring Thailand, while mango speaks of the tropics, where Vietnam lies. To this pastiche the French, in more than a century of colonial rule, added a layer of stylish presentation.
Saigon Saigon's kitchen and waitstaff retain a French luster. Starter courses arrived within minutes of our ordering (along with tall glasses of water and a large carafe for the whole table); despite the swift service, every dish was gorgeous to look at. In a small gesture of civility, our waiter asked if we wanted to order steamed rice rather than simply bringing it and charging us for it, as some places irritatingly do.
On one plate a red bell pepper had been fancifully carved into an elongated claw shape; on several others were bits of carrot sliced into corkscrews, like stubby orange Slinkys. All the starter dishes included a heaping of rice noodles, a shallow bowl of seasoned fish sauce for dipping, and cucumber sticks stacked like miniature, pale green logs.
Saigon's seafood rolls ($4.50) were crisp and flaky, almost like good pastry. Their filling of fresh crab meat and prawn mousse wasn't bad, but the pale flavor never quite emerged.
The crispy soft-shell crabs ($6.95), on the other hand, needed no embellishment. The two crabs were rubbed with garlic and pepper and dipped in batter before being quickly deep-fried — a modest preparation whose resulting crunchiness perfectly framed the crabs' juiciness. They did look scary on the plate, however, like giant beetles.
Duck salad with ginger dressing ($3.95) came cold but was bright with the tastes of ginger and rice vinegar and a faint citrus accent. Slivers of dark duck meat rested on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrots, all of it infused with the tang of the dressing.
The one bad starter, barbecued quail ($4), arrived embarrassingly late, after all the main dishes had been served. Quail has a high labor-to-pleasure ratio — the little birds seem to be mostly bones — and this quail didn't even have much taste to compensate for all the trouble of trying to eat it. The sauce's flavor was incoherent, and two accompanying quail's eggs looked like something out of last year's Easter basket. We left most of it lying there, because we had already started on the main courses.
Saigon Saigon's signature dishes are lemon-grass stir-fries, with chicken ($5.50), beef ($6.25), pork ($6.50), prawns ($7.95), or — my favorite — lamb ($6.50). Lamb is hardly a staple of Asian kitchens, but the sweet gaminess of the meat makes a lovely match with the rich, pungent lemon-grass sauce. Lemon grass does have a citruslike taste, but it rises through the nose more than it bites on the tongue, and its aromatic quality seems to surround the flavor of the meat rather than fight it.
The fresh salmon fillet ($7.95) was a little dry (overbroiled?), but it was rescued by a sensuous coconut-milk sauce lightly scented with curry. Again, an imaginative garnish: thin slices of Early Girl tomato laid out in a fan shape.
Royal golden duck ($7.95), a pan-fried half-duck, resembled the soft-shell crab in the purity of its flavor. The duck was seasoned with garlic and came in a “green peppercorn sauce,” but the real sauce was the duck's natural juice, intensified by a flawless pan-fry that crisped the skin without drying the meat.
Our table's one aspiring vegetarian chose the curry eggplant ($5.50). The dish also included carrots and pea pods scattered among the squishy chunks of eggplant. In its sinister gray-green sauce it looked like leftovers neglected for months at the back of the refrigerator, but it tasted decently of curry (one of those flavors that tends to dominate any dish in which it figures). Most vegetarian dishes strike me as overinflated side dishes, and this one was no exception.
We did literally overinflate one starter course by ordering the barbecued calamari with sate sauce ($3.50) as a main course. The skewered triangles of calamari were fanned out around a small dish of spicy peanut sauce and were a bit tough and dry. They were also a curious yellow. I asked the maitre d' what accounted for the color, and he explained, “Cayenne.” We agreed among ourselves that he meant turmeric, but either way it made no difference in the flavor.
By dessert time, the attentiveness of the service had slacked off considerably. This didn't matter much, because there were only two choices on the menu: creme caramel ($1.75) and fried bananas with coconut ice cream ($2.75). The creme caramel quivered like Jell-O, but it was sweet enough not to be bland, and it swam in a caramel sauce that tasted nearly like a liqueur.
The bananas reached the table warm but not hot, and no one scorched the roof of his mouth. They'd been dipped in some sort of batter and deep-fried to a delicate, soft crispness. The accompanying scoop of ice cream was cold and uncomplicated and offered the taste of pure coconut, made sharp and clear by judicious sweetening.
It took some doing to get the waiter to bring the bill, but by then the restaurant was nearly full of people who looked as happily sated as we felt. We all knew we were getting a great deal on an impromptu banquet.
Saigon Saigon, 1132 Valencia, S.F., 206-9635. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Mon-Sat 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun 5:30-9:30 p.m.