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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Noodle Soup for the Soul

By B.A. Nilsson

Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant

307 Central Ave., Albany, 436-1868. Serving lunch 11-2:30 Tue-Sat, dinner 2:30-9 Tue-Thu, 2:30-10 Fri-Sat, 11-9 Sun. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Entrée price range: $8.50 (pho bo) to $20 (Van’s three-meat combo)

Ambiance: understated

It’s possible that pho, the name for a much-loved Vietnamese noodle soup, derives from the French pot au feu, a stew-like soup that, tradition would have it, is simmered in a continually refilled pot that never leaves the fire. The influence of French cooking on the Vietnamese gives a special elegance to this part of the Asian spectrum. A good pho is prepared with a stock that has been brewed for hours, so why shouldn’t there be language fusion as well?

People swear by pho as a restorative—a curative, even—and delight in the mixing of flavors to achieve the right balance of its elements. You may have lime juice to squeeze into it, sriracha sauce to ramp up the heat, bean sprouts for crunch, and sweet hoisin sauce to add to the mix or use as a dip for the meat in your soup. And that meat selection can be varied. Traditionally, a variety of beef cuts is offered, with chicken, shrimp and tofu as alternatives. At Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant, beef round, brisket and meatballs are the most popular choices, available in every combination.

I chose all three ($9). The soup arrived quickly, the meat already in place. (Some restaurants serve a near-boiling broth in which you poach raw beef slices, but that’s not Van’s custom.) It’s a large serving—too large even for me to finish at a sitting. The broth is deeply infused with beef flavoring, as befits the cooking time, and the component meat and noodles make it a complete meal that may require all the utensils you have at hand, chopsticks and spoon at the very least.

Prepared this skillfully, it’s a can’t-go-wrong dish, also available for lunch. As I enjoyed the dish, I promised myself that I’d make sure to try it when I feel the first scratchy signs of the inevitable winter cold.

Chef-owner Hung Van Nguyen opened his restaurant some nine years ago at a Madison Avenue location that had been the home of My Linh. His current location, to which he moved in 2006, was the home of Saigon, a cafeteria-like place with great Vietnamese food, an incomprehensible menu and what seemed like nonstop Asian karaoke. It shares a stretch of Central Avenue with a growing number of places offering some needed ethnicity. The ambiance has been dressed as much as can be reasonably expected in a large retail space, reminding us that a visit here is more about the food, but the look of the place is as good or better than you’ll find on Mulberry Street in Manhattan.

The appetizer list is dominated by spring and summer rolls. Although neither is typically fried in Vietnamese cuisine, in this case the spring rolls take a trip through the hot oil and still emerge as light as they are crispy. We ordered the combo of pork and shrimp ($5.50 for a plate of four) that also contains, within that gossamer wrapper, rice vermicelli and vegetables, with a side dish of sweet dipping sauce made with nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce that gives an unexpected completeness to whatever it joins.

Three salads are offered, with shredded chicken or poached shrimp for $6.50, or sliced beef for $10, each with an array of vegetables, cabbage, peanuts and/or nuoc mam.

The entrée list is daunting in its breadth. Want some duck? There’s a crispy, boneless half for $19 and an oven-roasted variety for $16 or $30 depending on whether you want it half or whole. A grilled lemongrass-marinated pork chop is $12; add shrimp and it’s $17. Barbecued pork is $14. And there are chicken preparations galore, including tantalizing coconut milk-based curries. These are from the served-with-rice side of the menu. The served-with-vermicelli side offers the many selections all over again.

Charged with seeking a representative variety of offerings, the rest of my party ducked into the comparative safety of chicken dishes. So I was able to sample crispy roasted chicken (half for $11; whole for $19; half was plenty). I have to confess that I’m happy enough when a chicken comes out of the oven with at least some of its juices intact. Here it’s both juicy and redolent of ginger, and, as promised, crisp.

That adjective is all over the menu, even used to describe the two meat-filled crepe dishes, filled with chicken or shrimp ($15 each). It’s a large portion, with the single (but crispy) crepe struggling to contain its payload, in our case shredded chicken with bean sprouts and mushrooms. Again, the flavors melded nicely, set off with a dash of nuoc mam.

You can get your crepe with tofu at the same price, one of eight vegetarian- designated dishes that also include curried tofu ($14), hot and sour tofu soup ($14), sautéed tofu with vermicelli ($15) and minty, fried vegetarian spring rolls over vermicelli ($11).

Service was attentive, even as a number of parties strolled in during our visit, and the experience was surprisingly cheerful in an understated way. I’m ascribing that sense to the pho I consumed. It’s addictive.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

It’s Beaujolais time, and the folks at Provence (Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) invite you to join them for their 10th anniversary celebration with the 2009 release of George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. A three-course menu will be offered tonight (Thursday, Nov. 19) through Saturday (Nov. 21). For starters, choose mussels Marseilles, pumpkin-sage bisque or duck confit salad. Entrées include braised black Angus short ribs, rotisserie-roasted stuffed heritage hog pork loin, pan-seared fillet of salmon with zucchini-wild mushroom sautée, and boneless quail stuffed with tart cherry bread pudding. Dinner includes a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau, and there’s a choice of dessert. It’s $37.95 per person, and you can make a reservation by calling 689-7777 (provence-restaurant.net). . . . Maestro’s (371 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) continues its Five Dollar/Five O’Clock entrée special through Nov. 25, giving you a choice of four entrées that are $5 apiece. The catch? Your entire party must be seated by 5 PM—not one minute later! Reservations are highly suggested, so call 580-0312 (saratogamaestros.com). . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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