Pho K.O.

Ngon Bistro defies all conventional wisdom and opens in Frogtown with elegance to burn, wine for the ages, and the best beef pho in town

This first page holds most of the fusion dishes—well, the word "fusion" isn't great for what these things are, but I don't have a better one. The curried duck confit appetizer ($7.95), for instance, isn't duck confit as most of us know it—namely, duck preserved in its own fat—but is essentially a spicy duck curry, served with rounds of classically airy Vietnamese French bread. So, it's not really fusion, it's more like a classic Vietnamese dish served in a slightly different portion, to fit in with American bistro restaurant traditions. It's good stuff whatever you call it—spicy, creamy with coconut milk, rich with strands and lumps of tender duck, all of it made fresh and clean with lots of bright young herbs. Another good choice is the vegetarian egg rolls ($3.95) made with lots of meaty mushrooms and crunchy glass noodles; they taste savory, earthy, almost milk-chocolatey. Skewers of lemongrass-marinated beef ($6.95), served with all the accompaniments so that they could be turned into lettuce wraps, are another standout, with deeply flavored, barbecue-sticky, tangy meat and a buffet of fresh vegetables to give them contrast.

Other appetizers I was less thrilled with: The ahi tuna poke ($9) is a plain version of rare tuna, diced and dressed in a spicy soy and ginger dressing, but when I had it it wasn't very good, for the tuna was that awful red cold nothing that tuna so often is these days. The sugarcane shrimp ($6.50) is a house version of the traditional preparation of seasoned shrimp paste wrapped around a sugarcane skewer and grilled; Ngon's is sweet, mild, and light, but not too special—the dish generally lacked oomph. The spring rolls (goi cuon, with pork and shrimp for $3.95, or with smoked salmon for $6.95) were very fresh, but made with so much lettuce that they began to taste a little too much like an undressed salad.

Similarly, the restaurant offers a number of splurge entrees, which I found less satisfying than Ngon's more traditional dishes. Of the ambitious entrees, I thought the scallops with coconut rice ($15.95) was the best—rare scallops were expertly seared to give them a glassy crust, and they were paired with a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy rice, sort of like a coconut-milk risotto. The lemongrass-sauced ribeye ($16 for an ordinary portion, $23 for a gargantuan steakhouse one) will probably find lots of fans, because it's a good piece of meat, and lots of it, but for me the sauce was incongruously sweet.

A large mahi mahi fillet ($15.95) with a mango salad was so plain as to be all but unseasoned, and while there wasn't really much wrong with it, I would never order it again knowing about all the other treats the menu holds. Most of those are in the more traditional sections of the menu, like the beef pho, or the nearly as good seafood soups, or the beautiful "broken rice plates," com tam. For these, broken rice (long-grain rice that broke during milling) is cooked and molded into a perfect disc, with slices of English cucumber set upon it off to one side, slices of tomato up in another quadrant, sweet pickled carrot and daikon elsewhere, and your choice of various things arranged artfully, things like sweet gingery shrimp ($8.95) or three sorts of tasty pork, including a sweet-sauced grilled cutlet as devourable as a candy bar, and a fried egg ($6.95). I have never seen a broken rice plate so artfully done.

It turns out that there's a lot of art in the souls of the folks who created Ngon Bistro, namely chef and owner Hai Truong and his wife, Jessica Ainsworth-Truong, who is an interior decorator and interior decorating teacher at Art Institutes International Minnesota. Of course, Jessica is responsible for the luxurious, airy, French postcolonial genius of the room, but Hai Truong, who minored in art when he was an econ major at the University of Minnesota, has some non-food artistic accomplishments under his belt as well—all the photography on the walls of the restaurant right now is his own.

In addition to art, this little gem of a restaurant has a lot of history. Hai Truong, while only 32 years old, has been working on the very corner his restaurant occupies for, by his calculation, maybe 25 years—for this is the very location that held his parents' first restaurant, the original Caravelle. The Truongs are essentially Minnesota pho royalty: Hai Truong's father opened all four Carvelles, selling them each, by and by, and Hai Truong's aunt founded Pho 79; when she retired, she sold him this building. I phoned up Truong to find out the story behind his restaurant, which seemingly sprung from nowhere to the top of the pack. It didn't. It turns out that the pho at Caravelle, Pho 79, and here all comes from the same top-secret family recipe, just tweaked to different chefs' palates. Evidently, Hai Truong's palate and mine are the same, because I've got some pho leftovers from my last visit to Ngon Bistro in my fridge right now, and as I'm typing this I'm fighting the urge to drive back to the sunny, artful little restaurant for just one more fresh bowl.

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