4139 Canal St
New Orleans, LA 70119
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Café Minh is an Asian restaurant that functions much more like an upscale bistro than a place where you'd ever expect to pick up take-out. The chef is Minh Bui, who was born in Vietnam. In New Orleans, he got a thorough, on-the-job culinary education working first at Commander's Palace and later at Emeril's Restaurant. By the mid-'90s, he opened his own restaurant, Lemon Grass, which combined his family's cooking traditions and the energy of his new chef skills. Café Minh is his latest interpretation of the dynamic between those two culinary worlds, and it's one that opens very intriguing possibilities.
Chef Bui's first Lemon Grass was in Mid-City, though he later moved it to more posh digs in the CBD and subsequently opened a second and grander downtown restaurant called 56 Degrees nearby. Those both closed before Katrina. He opened Café Minh back in his old Mid-City neighborhood late in 2006, and it is closer in spirit to the original Lemon Grass than either of his preceding, fancier restaurants. The space now has an elegant, understated design of clean lines and contemporary touches. It's upscale but not uptight.
The layout of Café Minh does make for some awkward greetings, which can set the wrong mood right from the start. There is no reception area, so people walk through the door to find themselves hovering over a nearby table of diners, waiting for someone to direct them. Knowing this in advance, the best move is to proceed directly to the bar and wait there for attention. Otherwise, service is fine for the bistro-level ambitions of the place, and can be engagingly flamboyant if you get the same outgoing waiter who always seems to wait on me.
Some of the dishes at Café Minh are the same that you would find at casual Vietnamese joints, like the grilled shrimp bun, a bowl of cool rice noodles with fish sauce and fresh herbs and sprouts. Similarly, the goi cuon are spring rolls of rice noodle, shrimp and pork bound up in fresh, rice paper wrappers, and nearly everyone seems to order them wherever they appear.
But the most exciting dishes are the ones chef Bui conceives himself, while still keeping Asian flavors at the center. A whole, narrow, tender, grilled Ichiban eggplant is sliced as the platform for gently sautéed scallops with a sweet soy glaze, for instance, while steamed mussels use cilantro and wasabi in the broth.
The kitchen has a habit of combining different appetizers on the same plate, in the manner of a sushi bar putting a whole order on one platter. This usually makes for impressive, feast-like presentations, but it can be annoying when sauces commingle or if you had not intended to share.
A similar mix of lightly-refined Vietnamese traditional dishes and innovative chef's creations define the entrée list. Naturally, there are a lot of noodle dishes and entrée-sized soups. For the seafood pasta, flat, wide noodles replace the usual penne or spaghetti and cradle crawfish, shrimp and scallops in a very thin, soupy broth with lots of garlic. Large, butterflied shrimp, green onions and rice noodles soak in a mild and buttery curry sauce for another rather simple but satisfying dish. The bouillabaisse was a rare disappointment in this department with its bland broth.
Korean-style braised short ribs are appropriately chewy and crusty, with the aromatic flavor of star anise. Rich and creamy garlic mashed potatoes and the shredded zucchini and squash were Western accompaniments to this Asian meat preparation. The roasted rack of lamb could have come any number of French bistro kitchens, and there's nothing wrong with that. The lacquered duck, however, was too salty even if it was beautifully presented. Vegetarians make out well with this menu, which has a number of tofu dishes and vegetable stir-fries using interesting Asian greens and oils.
The full menu is served during the busy lunch shift, which adds a few sandwiches, like a burger made with Kobe-style beef.
Many traditional Vietnamese desserts are chilled gelatins that don't quite play well in an upscale, Western-style restaurant, so Bui wisely sticks with familiar finales, like flan and crème brulee.
There is a full bar. The wine list seems to have a particular emphasis on the crisp whites that pair well with this light, often spicy food. Beer is a great accompaniment to the salty, sour, spicy tastes of Vietnamese cooking too. The coffee is the dark, strong brew favored at all Vietnamese restaurants, sweetened with condensed milk.
Prices at Café Minh are moderate, with plenty of entrees below $20. A couple should be able to have dinner here with a bottle of wine for about $100.
I've long wondered how a marriage of contemporary Creole cuisine and Vietnamese tastes would work. The cuisine at Café Minh is more like fusion-lite than a pure melding, since so many dishes adhere overwhelmingly to their Vietnamese or French/Western roots. But the effort is an early glimpse of where this hybrid cuisine could go, and that alone makes Café Minh one of the more unique restaurants in the city