Ngon Vietnamese Bistro 799 University Ave., St. Paul 651.222.3301
You cannot have great pho without great broth. If you disagree with me, that's it, we are just going to have to get chains and knives and finish this one in a dark alley. Because I know—I know! I know because you write to me and tell me—I know that some of you start with the idea that there is no bad pizza, no bad doughnut, no bad ice-cream cone, and then just spot-weld onto that the idea that there is no bad pho. Why, if you throw enough hot sauce, vinegar, lime juice, and bean sprouts into that classic bowl of Vietnamese soup, anything at all transforms from hot water with noodles to delicious. Right? Wrong. Wrong! Wrong like rhinestones on sewer pipes, wrong like Reese's Pieces in scones, wrong like stretch Hummers, wrong like Paris Hilton.
Am I making much ado about nothing? I don't care—I have had so many bowls of pho that were just watery aquariums where low-cost ingredients go to die that I feel beyond militant on the topic. Moreover, when I had the great, the gorgeous, the gallopingly, gargantuanly gratifying beef pho at the new Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in Frogtown, I wished to take a thousand bowls of it with me, fill a thousand Super Soaker water guns with it, and just rampage. Take that, lesser pho vendors—splat! When you try this pho, you will feel the same way: Ngon Bistro serves the best beef pho I've ever had. The broth is what does it—it's potent, hauntingly spiced and sweet, rich and beefy brown, onion-touched and herbal, peppery and anise-scented. In short, it's as complex and richly nuanced as a wedding, as dark and unforgettable as a divorce, but far quicker than either to get through. You gotta try it.
Now, the Ngon Bistro opened in February, and the first time I looked at the menu, I did what any critic would and zeroed in on the fact that they have a large number of Euro-bistro sorts of dishes—duck confit, roast mahi mahi with a mango salad, and a sushi-grade raw tuna appetizer, as well as a remarkable wine list. Upscale comes to Frogtown? I raced over.
What I found was worth the drive: Ngon is elegant as lace curtains—which it has on its vast windows overlooking University Avenue; it also has silk-shaded light fixtures bedecked with chandelier crystals, high lemony walls that soar from bands of elegant deep ochre wainscoting, and ceiling fans with rattan blades spinning lazily overhead. Essentially, the place is a bit French colonial, but mostly French bistro, and feels like a million bucks. The wine and beer drink like a million bucks—but happily cost less.
Where to start? Let's begin with the beers, for a change: The 11 beers on the list are all local microbrews, and they all pair expertly with Vietnamese food. The Brau Brothers Pilz ($3.95) from Lucan, Minnesota, is crisp and noticeably but not overwhelmingly hoppy, giving it enough backbone to stand up to a vinegar-and-fish-sauce-dressed salad, yet lending it enough elegance to be enjoyed on its own. Summit Brewing's orange-and-cardamom-accented wheat beer, Scandia ($3.95), is a natural match with herbal spring rolls or anything featuring cilantro. Brau Brothers' malty, slightly smoky Scotch Ale ($3.95) is just the beer for a beefy pho. Ngon Bistro easily has the most thoughtful beer list I've ever seen in a Vietnamese restaurant.
As if that weren't enough, the wine list is positively dreamy. It's 17 bottles long, but good enough to rival almost all of our best local wine bars, as it's composed almost entirely of bottles gathered from small vintners working to create unique wines. The "Vivr! Vivr!" Ribera del Duero, for instance, is a rosy, smoky, earthy, but nicely acidic Spanish red ($7 a glass, $28 a bottle) that makes beef pho just sing with its winter spices and strum with great depths. The Lois Gruner Veltliner ($8.50/$34) is a crisp, highly acidic, but nicely aromatic Austrian white that pairs perfectly with the various sweet and herbal accents in a bun salad. There's really not a bad wine on this spectacular little list, but if you really want to impress your date, you could summon a bottle of the creamy, fragrant as a fruit basket, yet elegantly mineral-edged Riesling from Max Ferd. Richter, a 300-year-old family-run vineyard in Germany's Mosel river valley ($34). Actually, the more I think about it, the more I yearn for you to take a date to Ngon Bistro, pronto, because you are going to appear so impressive with your tri-level mastery of fine global wines, superb local beers, and authentic Vietnamese food.
When it comes to Ngon Bistro's food, the most important thing to realize is that you have to get the pho. Did I mention that? They have five versions. My favorite is the traditional multi-beef pho dac biet ($6.95)—rice noodles with six different beef cuts suspended in the sweet, spicy world of its broth, including fragrant, toasty beef meatballs, meltingly gelatinous fatty bits, meaty brisket, tripe, and so on; each of the sorts of beef has been so well treated on its journey to the pho bowl that it tastes fresh and distinct—finish the bowl and you have eaten the whole world. Still, I know there are many of you who prefer to lead a life free of tripe, and for you there is a lovely version made with thin slices of beef rib-eye steak ($8.95). I emphasize ordering the pho not just because it's the best in town, but also because it probably will not be the first thing you think to get. This is because you find it on the reverse side of the one-page menu, and there are so many appealing dishes on the first page that you may never think to flip the menu over.
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.
It's funny. I've probably watched dozens of Vietnamese teenagers dumping bowls of pho into the bins on table bussing-carts at their parents' restaurants over the years, but I never thought about what a lifetime of bussing pho might lead to. For one thing, it seems to lead to some very firm thoughts about entrepreneurship—Hai Truong told me that his fantastic beer and wine list stems from two places; one, his experiments with home-brewing, and two, his fierce commitment to helping other independent entrepreneurs, such as the little vintners and brewers whom he supports with his list. For another, it leads to a deep sense that you can do better—you could make the desserts a bit more unique (I forgot to mention the mung bean cheesecake!), the room a lot prettier, the experience more memorable. You could make broth for your pho so good that people trumpet your name far and wide and threaten to fill Super Soaker water guns with it, just to prove to people that there is a difference between average pho broth and the kind you want to tell the world about.