IT'S BEEN SO DARK AND SO WET FOR so long that it seems dangerous, even suicidal, to name your place after a rainstorm.
Monsoon is a new Vietnamese restaurant on 19th Avenue East, in the place where Craig's used to be, and the 19th Street Bakery before that. It faces stiff competition from the awe-inspiring Kingfish Cafe across the street, but if Monsoon makes it through its infancy (and I'm sure it will), it'll be in a prime spot for the long run, nestled in the shady, quiet shoulder of Capitol Hill, surprisingly close to the heart of it all, but a pleasant world apart.
The restaurant is a family trust, the long-standing collective ambition of siblings Eric, Sophie, and Yen Banh. Monsoon is their first independent venture, following an impressive apprenticeship in the kitchens of such heavyweights as Roy's and Obachine, and the imprint of their pedigree is unmistakable. Monsoon serves haute cuisine from a country too often associated with the profligate, salty $3-a-bowl bargain. "We wanted to get back to basics," says Eric. "We wanted to showcase the best and simplest of Vietnamese cuisine."
The menu, like everything about Monsoon, is gorgeously restrained. The dishes are listed in sans-serif type by title only--no description, no narrative--and the prices just numbers: 7, 5, 3.5. We are left alone to muse on the particulars of "seafood chow mein" and "10-spice flank beef," the page reading like an e.e. cummings poem. The austerity of the menu is mirrored in the room's simple, hesitant decor: black floor, white walls, blond tables, and not much else. Even salt and pepper are conspicuously absent. For a moment, it seems almost oppressive. Then the food arrives.
The food at Monsoon is superb, and the restraint of the place makes it even better. One is left at peace with a great dish. Yen will narrate the dishes for you if you ask, but try to avoid this. Talking about great food is like analyzing love: the meaning inevitably becomes diluted. Instead, start with the traditional sweet and sour soup with shrimp. Savor its re-invention of the tired sweet and sour motif: fragrant and clear, it excites your palate and prepares it for even greater delights. The vegetarian spring rolls are also very good, and the accompanying mango purée sauce is excellent. Or try the remarkable la lot beef, char-broiled and wrapped in a gloriously pungent Vietnamese herb. It is hauntingly good, and will wake you up at night with happy memories.
For entrees, try "Mom's tomato tofu"--a perfectly humble dish, with the delicate flavor of fried tofu befriended by a warm tomato sauce (perfect for the young or spice-shy). The seafood chow mein is another pleasingly basic dish, with its simple but robust flavors of fresh broccoli, snow peas, straw mushrooms, shrimp, and ginger. More complex is the wok-fried lemongrass chicken, which came swimming in a sea of pungent spice, infused with a smoky tang and a hint of sweet vinegar. I'm sure the Malay curry chicken with yam and the grilled lemongrass pork tenderloin are just as multi-dimensional, and just as good.
But I am not after just plain good. On this day, with my mood fouled by the endless rain and my stomach roaring with neglect, I am looking for the great meal, the meal which will slap my face and tell me to shape up--and Monsoon has it, at least twice over. Monsoon's "Signature" dishes, a green tea-baked salmon in banana leaf, and a seared Chilean sea bass with fresh herbs and chili pepper, are shockingly brilliant--the kind of dishes that can stop time and space, encapsulating a moment within a flavor that you remember with clarity days later. Eating the salmon was like drinking expensive scotch, with layers of flavor--the earthy tea, the creamy fish, the woody banana--swirling in on a wisp of smoke and ginger, and pushing each other about like children in an excited crowd. The sea bass was just as surprising: a block of crispy fish under a lace of fragrant and mysterious Vietnamese herbs. Both dishes were so confidently conceived, and so honestly good, I lost myself in their flavor. My spirits began to slowly rise. I pushed my plate away in a semi-narcotic state, refreshed and surprised as if the sun had just come out after a downpour.