May 14, 2020 § 2 Comments
I’ve been going back and forth about whether to post about my first—and what has turned out to be only—visit to Nam Vietnamese Brasserie in Redwood City. Initially, I had planned to write a short post about the restaurant’s February 25 opening-night dinner service—not the usual deep dive, just a quick look at the opening-night experience of this new and much-anticipated, fast-casual Vietnamese restaurant from Anne Le Ziblatt, former owner of Tamarine in Palo Alto and Bong Su in San Francisco.
Generally, I prefer to visit a restaurant a couple of times before writing about it. You never know when a server or the kitchen might have an off night, so I think it’s only fair to average the experiences. And opening night, while exciting, can be rife with kinks that need to be worked out. Nam’s opening night was frenetic but appeared successful: a line out the door, a packed house, and runners doing their best to drop dishes at the right tables. The noise level was crazy. Things got so busy that runners stopped delivering a special amuse-bouche an hour or so after service started.
The space, formerly occupied by The Striped Pig, is small—seating about 40 people—and at the center are two communal dining tables that seat 14 people each. A dining bar fronts the kitchen, separated by glass, so that diners can watch the action. Two-tops along the front window and adjacent wall round out the seating. I arrived 45 minutes into service, and diners ahead of me were hanging out, waiting for space to open up.
In its incarnation as The Striped Pig, this space on Main Street was dark and cozy, with a linger-awhile vibe. Nam’s decor is bright and modern, blending elements of clean-lined mid-century modern with Southeast Asian touches, such as the woven-basket light fixtures above the communal tables. Eye-catching murals fill wall space in the dining area and near the restrooms.
My friend Kye, who joined me for dinner that night, and I each ordered a dish from the three menu categories—Soup, Grill, Sides—so that we could try as many dishes as possible. At the time, the menu offered five soups in two sizes; most of the soups on the menu were gluten-free, and one was also vegetarian. The small size was a substantial bowl, especially if you’re ordering other dishes.
My soup choice was South (Nam Noodle), which had a pork and chicken bone broth with rice noodles, prawns, and slices of pork.
Kye opted for the Udon, which had the same broth, but with rock crab and nicely chewy tapioca noodles. Additional condiments customized the flavor of each soup, giving the Udon a spicier, richer flavor and the South a lighter, slightly saltier flavor. Both were memorable, and each would be a satisfying standalone meal.
The Grill section of the menu had four options (tofu, chicken, pork, beef) which could be paired with one of three bases: rice, vermicelli, or greens. The tofu and pork options were gluten-free. We ordered the crispy chili-lemongrass tofu over greens and the Hanoi pork with rice. Portion sizes were main-course sized and could be shared family-style.
We rounded out our tastings with the Spring Rolls and Imperial Rolls from the Sides section of the menu. Both contain pork and shrimp, but could be made vegetarian on request. Only the fresh spring roll is gluten-free.
At the end of the meal, I decided to hold the post until I could make a visit in March to take additional photos and try a couple of dishes again. I was curious about how the menu and clientele would settle out in the coming weeks. I think you know what happened next. We were starting to see the effects of COVID19 at the end of February, and during the next couple of weeks, things changed rapidly. I wasn’t able to get back to Nam before the Bay Area’s Shelter-in-Place (SIP) order came down.
With the uncertainty that followed, it didn’t make sense to post about the dine-in experience at a restaurant that could be closed indefinitely. I backburned the post. Also, like a lot of people, I was just trying to find my groove with the SIP. There were adjustments to make to life as we knew it, and the first couple of weeks were a bit of a daze. Since then, like a number of other Bay Area restaurants, Nam moved to a delivery/pickup model. The online menu has evolved from the opening-night menu I saw back in February, and dining in isn’t an option (obviously).
As I was reviewing my notes and photos from that night in February, I was struck by what we’ll likely now refer to as “the old normal”—sitting elbow-to-elbow at a community dining table, standing in line without being six feet apart, sharing tastes with friends without hesitation. No masks or gloves. Employees and diners alike, leaning in close to hear each other talk above the din.
Yesterday, I was working on a Spanish assignment with a classmate on Zoom. We were practicing a new verb tense by asking each other questions and coming up with answers. Her question to me: what I would do right now if COVID19 didn’t exist? I didn’t really need to think about it. I told her I would go to a restaurant and have dinner with a friend. For her, it would be having a coffee with a friend—at a coffeeshop. Almost nine weeks into sheltering, the Bay Area is slowly moving into Phase 2 of reopening, but dining in restaurants is not yet an option. At this point, it’s hard to imagine getting back to that place. In the meantime, we might just have to rely on memories.
What: Nam Vietnamese Brasserie
Where: 917 Main Street, Redwood City, CA 94062
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 4:30–8:30 p.m.