Vietnamese Va-Voom

Rice Paper sparks fusion in Linden Hills
Bill Kelley
Rice Paper
2726 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis

As someone with a distinct aversion to Kierkegaard, I have been forced to seek the answers to all the greater problems of life in our local Vietnamese restaurants. Therefore, I have concluded that cilantro is one of the most important tools in both keeping a marriage together and multilateral nuclear disarmament. Other than that, this plan has worked out great.

It has especially worked out great lately at Rice Paper, a new Linden Hills Vietnamese-fusion restaurant that's roughly the size of a good evening purse. (Vietnamese fusion in this instance is Vietnamese food with a few American fancy touches, like cooking with chicken breasts, and a few Thai touches, like a fondness for sweetness and coconut milk.)

What greater problems of life has Rice Paper answered? By my count, nearly all of them. For example, I have found the cure for Western vegetarian ennui in the popping, lively appetizers. One, the charmingly named "pomelo and grapefruit festivity" ($5.95), is an appetizer salad in which skinless sections of the two citruses (a pomelo is a lot like a grapefruit, but bigger) are dressed with a salty, tangy, tamarind-touched sauce and further topped with brown-fried shallots, roasted peanuts, and minced pac peo, an herb that's like a minty basil.

I like Rice Paper's tofu puffs even better--these are best things to happen to tofu in years. Order them and you get rectangles of tender, silky tofu, fried until their outer shell is as crisp and delectable as the hull of a great cake donut. These rectangles come dressed with an intense peanut sauce, not a merely sweet and peanut-buttery peanut sauce, mind you, but one made deeply resonant with fried shallots and dark, coarse raw sugar, and given a savory bite with green onion oil and made fresh with chopped freshly roasted peanuts. These tofu puffs combine the best things about donuts with the best things about peanuts, which I think we can all agree was a feat that clearly needed doing, especially if we are going to get away with eating our desserts before dinner.

Furthermore, furthermore, to say that entrees such as the grilled bo la lot ($11.95), the curry noodle plate ($12.95), and the tamarind rice trio ($13.95) have answered one of my most plaguing inner questions does not even begin to cover it. That the question is: "What would readers enjoy for dinner, sometimes?" doesn't minimize its importance. Oh no. That question plagues me. It does. And where is good old Kierkegaard then? Helling around in his Camaro with Kant, no doubt! Losers. Ahem. So, you can see what these entrees do for me, but what will they do for you?

They will amuse and delight you for the entire time your fork is in your hand, for one thing. How, exactly? Why, in the bo la lot you will enjoy the way sweetened ground beef is rolled in la lot leaves (in the same manner that Greek dolmades are rolled in grape leaves), and you will like how the bundles are grilled to give them a bit of smoke, and served to you in a neat little pile so that you might wrap them in lettuce leaves, add herbs, rice noodles, and bits of pickle, dunking the whole bundle in rice vinegar, and really just delighting the hell out of yourself once you experience the sweet, pickly, fresh, but slightly beefy thrills and chills.

Take on the curry noodle plate, and you'll get to add either chicken or tofu to a turmeric-bright pile of curried rice noodles resting on a big lettuce leaf. And on the other side of the plate you'll find a cabbage salad made with that same great peanut sauce; one side is sweet and crispy, the other dusky and savory. Nice! (Take heed, though: You will not enjoy the Rice Paper pad thai, a cold noodle salad with pickled mushrooms and bean sprouts that simply tastes like a failed experiment in leftovers.)

I think my favorite dish might have been the tamarind rice trio ($13.95), in which you get a little pile of sliced chicken breast or tofu in a straightforward sweet tamarind and onion sauce, and then alongside there are three little mounds of rice, each one individually seasoned. A peanut mound made with peanut sauce and topped with cilantro and ground peanuts, a green onion mound topped with soft-sautéed green onions and soaked with green onion oil, and a coconut mound drenched with sweetened coconut milk and crested with a little wiglet of toasted coconut flakes. By the time you try them all and decide which is your favorite you'll have eaten nearly all of your rice.

But, you say, doesn't the coconut rice more closely resemble a coconut macaroon than rice? Yes. You are correct. And if you strongly feel that rice should not resemble a macaroon, stay far, far away from this dish. Also avoid then the Rice Paper coconut shrimp or coconut tofu, ($13.95) which has the same coconut rice, but much, much bigger. Me? I see a lot of rice, and so I think: If rice wants to be a macaroon once in a great while, good for it. Let it get out of the house and have a little fun. Stretch its legs. Explore! Who am I to hem in rice? What am I, the rule-giver to rice? I think not. I am the advice-giver to you. And as such I tell you: Look, look what Rice Paper has done! They have solved the enduring mystery of each and every Asian kitchen in America--they have gotten white people to eat their rice!

I will admit that Rice Paper has something of a macaroon problem in other dishes, too. Things can be a little too sweet, a little too intensely dressed. The pomelo and grapefruit festivity, for example, just cries out for a supporting bed of half a pound of something to dilute the sauce. Shredded green mango, perhaps? The entrée of steamed tofu in a fresh ginger carrot sauce would be a perfect dish if the sweet hoisin was toned down a few notches.

But what is a life without intensity, if not mere existence?

I asked this of my cup of artichoke tea one evening and received a sage, reflective silence in reply. You know the kind of silence I mean. The kind that only real serenity can give. Or, barring that, real kiln firing. Which brought me to even deeper thoughts. Thoughts like: Why, if some thrifty hostess took it upon herself to put the pomelo and grapefruit festivity on top of some lettuce or something, why, that's not a bad idea! At that point, my artichoke tea went beyond silence, and was in fact struck dumb and deaf by the uncanny torrent of my insights. Later I took it to the hospital and it was okay. Don't worry.

Yes, artichoke tea. Which, in case you were wondering, mostly tastes greenish, and warm. There is also corn tea, which tastes like that, except a little sweeter. Sadly, Rice Paper has no beer and wine license. Nor does it have any desserts. In fact, the only thing that separates it from being a take-out counter are the eight tables and a few dozen pieces of attractive ceramic serving ware.

Which, of course, brings us to the point of complete despair. I mean, how can our local Vietnamese restaurants, even the more interesting, fusion-accented ones, solve the problems of global overpopulation? With India's population predicted to surpass that of China's in mid-century, can Rice Paper really only have 26 seats? I know that many of you are selflessly volunteering to sit in your dining companion's lap, but that is no way to eat soup. Should we institute a one-child policy in Linden Hills? With the proliferation today of so many double-wide strollers I hardly see that working. Moreover, I don't know that I'm willing to entrust the future of our democracy to a generation that has never fought--and I mean really fought, with knives--for the prize at the bottom of the cereal box.

I have no answers. I can only pray. For you, for me, for all of us. That we don't freeze to death this winter as we stand outside on 43rd Street, waiting for a table. That someone thinks to put Kierkegaard in comic book form on table tents in our bars, so that all of Western thought might not be lost. And above all that, for the continued wit and wisdom of cilantro.

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