May 5, 2011
What started off 17 months ago as a modest banh mi stand inside the West Loop's French Market has become one of the city's most interesting Vietnamese restaurants.
Saigon Sisters may have been born from a sandwich shop (which still operates in the French Market), but chef Matt Eversman (late of May Street Cafe), working with owner Mary Aregoni (one of the two sisters), has taken the menu well past pork-on-a-baguette territory. Frankly, some dishes go well beyond the Vietnamese boundaries, a circumstance that bothers the chef not one bit.
"There are very few items on the menu that are very traditional," Eversman says. "The green papaya salad is fairly traditional, and the pho (soup) is very traditional in presentation and composition. After that, we like to have fun."
Hey, bring on the fun. Eversman seems to know his audience well, and it's tough to go wrong with a menu whose prices stay south of the $20 mark. There's even a $25 three-course option offered Mondays through Thursdays.
Eversman offers a mix of Vietnamese, Vietnam-inspired and possibly-in-the-same-hemisphere-as-Vietnam dishes, but they all taste great. The least-legit dish on the menu is perhaps my favorite, a textural playground of nutty red quinoa, caramelized fennel, Brussels sprouts and fingertip-size grapefruit segments, over a butternut squash and star anise puree. Vegan doesn't come much tastier than that.
Elsewhere, incredibly tender pieces of grilled octopus sit over cuttlefish-ink rice on a long rectangular plate dusted with togarashi spices. Long strips of citrus-cured char, essentially a crudo, hang over cucumber rounds and a green-papaya remoulade, alongside a crumbly apple-sake sorbet -- a riot of clean, summery flavors.
Eversman has fun with game, substituting it in dishes that ordinarily call for pork or beef. Thus we get patties of wild boar in nuoc cham broth, alongside vermicelli noodles and a fragrant salad of Thai basil, mint and cilantro, and lamb luc lac -- shaken beef under an alias -- in which lamb tenderloin works exceedingly well with a sweet-salty-garlic marinade and oyster-fish sauce.
Pretty pieces of hoisin-glazed quail, arranged in a straight line over mushroom ragout, with a couple of red-rice fritters adding a crunchy element and dots of preserved-lemon puree providing bursts of acidity. Lightly battered shrimp with a savory caramel sauce arrive next to a pile of fried rice topped with an over-easy duck egg, the idea being to mix the yolk into the rice; the richer-than-rich rice mixture makes an interesting, if messy, counterpoint to the light-tasting shrimp.
The only items that didn't impress me were the disappointingly bland spring rolls, saddle with a middling peanut sauce, and overly chewy spare ribs, only partly rescued by five-spice and jalapeno seasonings.
There are only three desserts, but they're all terrific. Sous-chef John Boisse devised the kitchen's take on che, a Vietnamese custard, mingling flavors of butternut squash and coconut over vanilla-flavored sticky-rice puree. A solitary beignet, wearing a finial of spun sugar, sits on a fluffy cloud of white chocolate and coconut mousses alongside a yummy scoop of orange-ginger ice cream.
The ice cream comes from local producer Ruth & Phil's, who also supply the restaurant's ice-cream and sorbet trios (flavors vary, but when the addictive Vietnamese coffee ice cream is offered, get some).
There's a very ambitious beverage program, due largely to the efforts of Rashed Islam, last seen at Prairie Fire. Islam oversees a tidy but thoughtful wine list, and he's great at whipping up cocktails on the fly to match particular dishes. Give him your preferences and set him loose.
The dining room is small, accommodating only 34 patrons, and that's counting the seven barstools. Concrete floors and glass-and-aluminum walls give the space an industrial feel, softened considerably by the bare-wood tables and bentwood chairs, and the L-shaped wood banquette. I wouldn't call it a comfortable room by any means, but it'll do.
Saigon Sisters is also open at lunchtime, offering counter service and a limited menu (but quite a nice assortment of banh mi, thanks very much). Everything's wrapped to go, but you're welcome to sit in the dining room. Or outside, perhaps; the restaurant is hoping to have a sidewalk cafe this summer, even though this particular sidewalk sits under the CTA tracks. Dining 'L'-fresco? Maybe it'll catch on.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
567 W. Lake St., 312-496-0090
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
Entree prices: $10-$18
Credit cards: DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible
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