It wasn't until Claiborne dined in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris that he experienced "one of the most captivating food experiences of [his] life."
Claiborne would later write a foreword to Nicole Routhier's The Foods of Vietnam, one of the best introductions to the remarkable, distinctive cuisine of a country influenced by the cooking traditions of China, India, the Netherlands and France. Routhier compared Vietnamese cooking to Thai cuisine, noting that both use fish sauce, shrimp paste, lemongrass, mint, basil, fiery chili peppers and curry. But, she wrote, "a spicy Vietnamese dish will be generally less intense than a Thai dish."
In fact, a certain lack of culinary intensity may throw off first-time visitors to Sung Son Vietnamese Bistro, which opened two months ago in Westport.
That's partly because Vietnamese-born Sung Son and his wife, Ling, have given their new restaurant a startlingly bold design: heavy glass-and-metal doors swing open to reveal two dining rooms as spartanly stylish as art galleries. There's art, too -- large canvases painted in vivid colors run the gamut of subjects: beautiful women, lush bamboo forests, damp cobblestone streets. The floors are concrete, and the walls in the first dining room are rough-textured concrete splashed with uneven strokes of yellow and mahogany -- "As weathered as an ancient alley in Morocco," my friend Joe noted. To soften the hard surfaces, panels of sheer ivory gauze float between the tables in this room, and nutmeg-colored, fabric-covered acoustic panels hang from the ceiling.
The place has been designed with a lot of drama and couldn't be more different from Son's earlier restaurant, the grim China Feast on Linwood Boulevard (now closed so a Subway sandwich joint can move in). In fact, no other restaurant serving this kind of fare has the sophistication of Son's namesake establishment. With his new place, the 33-year-old Son is clearly aiming for an upscale clientele.
But the elegant style -- like the food and the service -- is a jumble of contradictions. It's all very sleek and shiny: saffron-yellow walls, cobalt-blue light fixtures, heavy leatherette menus. The servers are beautiful and personable young women, but the place is woefully understaffed. Plates pile up on the tables, glasses remain unfilled and simple requests -- a serving spoon for a tureen of soup, an extra plate, a question about the ingredients in a certain dish -- are often ignored.
Things seem to be getting lost in translation, and it's frustrating not to be able to make a connection, if only to understand the description of a "feather fish," the main ingredient in the spicy canh chua ca thac lac soup.
"It's from the river," said the waitress, smiling angelically.
"From the Missouri River or the Feather River Hatchery in California?" I asked, only half-kidding.
The server nodded and hurried off. I took a sip of what was supposed to be fresh-squeezed lemonade, though it didn't have a molecule of pulp and tasted as if it had been made with powder. My friend Carol would have liked a glass of wine, but the place doesn't have a liquor license yet. Carol shrugged at that news, dipped a Vietnamese spring roll into a tiny bowl of creamy peanut sauce and said, "Well, at least the place looks great."