For more than 40 years, Thai and Vietnamese immigrants have contributed to and influenced how Philadelphians cook at home and dine out. One such chef is Kamol Phutlek. He arrived here from Thailand and began cooking at La Panetiere, once the city’s finest French restaurant. Phutlek mastered the art of French cooking, met Steve Poses of Frog/Commissary fame, and was Frog’s first chef.
For many years, Phutlek owned Nan, his glorious French/Thai restaurant at 4000 Chestnut St. It was a serene room washed with pastel shades, crisp linen and colorful flowers. I enjoyed many dinners at Nan and still dream of the duck with Thai flavors. Phutlek suffered from back problems and retired a little while ago.
I heard the space recently became a Vietnamese restaurant. My culinary curiosity was up. The restaurant is now Saigon Cuisine and it is BYOB.
I felt a sense of loss as soon as Edward and I stepped in. The beauty of Nan has been transformed into a non-descript room with simple banquettes, tables and chairs.
The alarm usually goes off in my head as soon as I see a long menu with color photographs of suggested dishes. There were a number of young people in the restaurant and every one of them were eating pho.
Our server told us the restaurant has been open for about four months. He was familiar with Phutlek’s menu and style of cooking.
“Because we have so many students, our portions are bigger and the prices are lower,” he said with a smile.
The menu features typical Vietnamese fare simply presented. Vietnamese spring rolls ($4.25) arrived with lettuce, sprigs of fresh mint, pickled carrots and turnips along with a sweet dipping sauce.
Summer rolls are often a highlight of Vietnamese cuisine. At Saigon Cuisine, one receives two cool fat rolls ($5.50) filled with too much vermicelli, bland shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and basil. A few pickled vegetables came with the appetizer along with a very thin peanut sauce on the side.
I’ve enjoyed Vietnamese food in many restaurants, but have never heard of bun. Our server said these dishes are very popular and are served like a salad. I always have a sense of adventure, so we ordered the bun with grilled slice pork ($8.50).
A large white bowl was filled with rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, shredded cucumber, lettuce, mint, crushed peanuts and topped with some bite-sized slices of pork. Our server poured some fish sauce on top of the ingredients and tossed it up.
Unfortunately, it was rice noodle overkill in the bowl. All I could taste were cool noodles and a slightly sweet sauce. The bits of pork were OK, but the dish did not win any stars.
Crispy shrimp with minced pork sauce ($13.95) fared a bit better but I found it too salty. Small shrimp were coated in minced pork and quickly stir-fried. They arrived on a bed of shredded lettuce that added a cool contrast. We shared a small bowl of steamed white rice.
Saigon Cuisine lacks the refinement of Le Viet, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. The dishes also lacked the freshness and eye appeal of the ones I have enjoyed on so many occasions at Nam Phuong.
University City is filled with restaurants that cater to students. Jose Garce’s Distrito comes to mind. The Mexican dishes are tasty and inexpensive.
I am pretty certain Saigon Cuisine is the only Vietnamese restaurant in the area. It is a shame the food we sampled was below par.
One-and-a-half tips of the toque to Saigon Cuisine.