When it comes to the opening of a new Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis, there seems no end in sight, especially along the stretch of South Grand Boulevard between Arsenal and Gravois. That short -- maybe a mile -- strip now boasts five Vietnamese restaurants (not to mention another three further south on Grand). As with the proliferation of local Thai restaurants, Walgreens and Starbucks, one wonders just how many more Vietnamese restaurants the area can support before the bubble bursts.
Evidently at least one more. After a year of renovation, the Pham family opened Four Seasons in July in an unsightly building on the corner of South Grand and Cherokee Street. I remember that building: windows covered with plywood and painted white, with the word "Chiropractic" hand-painted in red letters; little mounds of debris always in front; and a decrepit doorway leading to someplace you'd rather not visit. And this was while the business was still in operation.
The Phams bought the building and invested about $300,000 in fixing it up. Walls were knocked out, a full-size kitchen built, the façade opened up and a gated parking lot added. Inside the décor is minimal but suggests a slightly more upscale feel than most Vietnamese restaurants: pale yellow walls, bamboo sun-hats shading the wall sconces, Vietnamese musical instruments hanging on the walls, tabletops cut from single pieces of granite, an onyx bar and heavy wooden chairs imported from China, filigreed with fanciful carvings.
Like a lot of Vietnamese places, it's all rather Chinese/Vietnamese-looking, which I always find interesting given the political history of the two nations. Likewise, the (large) menu subtly blends the two cuisines, almost too cozily. Chinese dishes are labeled by their Vietnamese name, making it difficult to glean their true nationality (though your "Kung Pao" and your "General Tso's" aren't too hard to figure out). But when in doubt, just ask. The servers know the menu front to back. Also, I was informed that even dishes normally associated with Chinese cuisine are given a Vietnamese twist, such as shrimp-stuffed wontons in the wonton soup.
That may be a nice variation, but I stuck to the Vietnamese portion of the menu over the course of my three visits, preferring the light, fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine (which owe in no small part to the preponderance of broth and water, as opposed to oil, as a cooking medium). Like more and more Asian restaurants these days, Four Seasons offers many entrées that approach the $20 mark, including some very tempting hot pots and tabletop-grilled beef and shrimp dishes. It's a good trend, allowing diners to expand into and explore new culinary delights. Most of the house specialties, however, run in the $10-to-$15 range, while the more common main dishes -- soups, clay pots, vermicelli, poultry, pork and beef-based creations -- hover around $6.
What are usually referred to as appetizers in American restaurants are called "little bites" in Vietnam. One could graze through an entire meal on these finger foods, and the traditional spring and summer rolls would make a good start: the former stuffed plump with pork, shrimp and vermicelli, the latter equally plump, minus the shrimp. Banh xeo (also known as "Happy Pancakes") consists of a large rice-flour crêpe filled with slices of roasted pork, a few big shrimp, bean sprouts, sautéed onion and peeled mung beans, which add a pleasant earthy flavor.
Quail, frogs' legs and eel are rare finds in most local Vietnamese restaurants, though they are favorites in Vietnam, where wild fowl and river creatures are nearly as common as farm-raised meats. And while most local eateries offer shrimp as the main seafood fare, Four Seasons boasts a sizable selection that includes lobster, whole tilapia, clams, crab and catfish, in addition to the aforementioned eel and frogs' legs. Most of the fresh seafood, I'm told, comes from Seafood City on Olive Boulevard in University City -- the only place I know of around here where you can buy your frogs' legs very fresh (as in: You choose the frog, they do the rest).
For the Phams, the unusual fare is no mere token gesture. The entrée list includes two quail dishes, three featuring frogs' legs, two with eel, three with clam and five with Dungeness crab. And Hoan Pham, who spent many years as head chef at the Imperial Palace in St. Charles, knows his way around traditional Vietnamese cooking. Upon the server's recommendation, we chose one of the quail plates, chim cut ro ti. Three small birds had been split, marinated in coconut juice and spices and steamed, then tossed in the coconut juice once again (coconut "juice" being the liquid found inside fresh coconuts, not the canned products known as coconut milk and cream that are often used in Thai cooking and are obtained by combining water with shredded coconut meat). The plate arrived steaming with a luscious pungency, the glistening birds arranged on a bed of fresh cilantro, tomatoes and onions.
As a special treat, we sampled ca ro phi chien me, a deep-fried tilapia, served whole. The fish was fresh-tasting and simple, but the dish was made by the chicken broth-based sauce: a fragrant, vinegary, liquid infused with tamarind pulp and full of chopped garlic, green onions and whole chili peppers. Far from being spicy-hot, the sauce seeped through the fried fish with a happy, sweet-spicy savor. That's the beauty of Vietnamese cuisine: the concentration on different textures, mixing spicy or sour ingredients with mild ones.
And topping cold soft noodles with grilled meat, crunchy cold bean sprouts and fresh, flavorful herbs, as in a house special bun dac biet bon mua, vermicelli topped with grilled chicken, beef, pork and whole shrimp (i.e., with the head left on), ladled with the ubiquitous lime-spiked Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc mam.
Another house special not to be missed is pho dac biet bon mua, a beef noodle soup. Vietnamese soups can be whole meals and are often served as breakfast -- which goes some way toward explaining why Four Seasons opens at 10:30 a.m. Much has been written about the nearly transcendent appeal of noodles and soup in Asian culture. A bowl of this soup explains more than a million words: a rich stock, cooked all day with beef bones and herbs, into which slices of rare and well-done beef, beef tendon, tripe and clear noodles are tossed and simmered. Alongside is a plate of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro leaves, a sprig of basil, a lime wedge and slices of jalapeño pepper, all of which you can add to your steaming bowl of heaven.
Four Seasons' liquor selections range from beer (including Saigon and Tsingtao) to a brief wine list and several umbrella drinks (mai tais, stingers, etc). Smoothies are big and refreshing, as is French coffee, served iced and sweetened with condensed milk. There are also several dessert "drinks," including a festive combination of jackfruit, palm seeds and flavored gelatin bits served in a parfait glass with ice and sweetened milk.
Walking up and down South Grand's Asian Mile with the other diners and club-hoppers, it's hard not to notice that the redevelopment of the business district is paying off. Several vacant storefronts still dot the area, though, and the strip has some way to go before it rivals, say, University City's Loop. In other words, there's definitely room for one more restaurant.