Column: Neighbors in Asia, neighbors in Westchester

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Saigonese’s beef brisket pho

Food seems to be a recurring theme in this column and often it has something to do with Asia. But, thankfully, I’m not alone in my love of the kafir lime leaf and the noodle as evidenced by the plethora of restaurants in Westchester dedicated to the cuisines invented 8884 miles away in Ho Chi Minh City.

This past year, two standout restaurants opened showcasing the food of Thailand and Vietnam. These countries do not share a border, but are close enough that their signature dishes have many similarities and both countries have had their food influenced by their big brother China up north.

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Saigonese’s papaya salad. Photos/Lisa Jardine

You will find nam pla, the salty, funky, fermented fish sauce in almost every dish they cook. Rice is featured at every meal and, considering these two countries are the world’s largest rice exporters, it makes sense.

The food in Thailand is spicier than Vietnam as they rely heavily on chili peppers. A standout dish I ate while in Bangkok actually contained immature green peppercorns that burst with peppery fire every bite I took. In Vietnam, they hold back on the spice while cooking and prefer to bring it to the table in small bottles and jars for the diner to decide their preferred level of heat. The Vietnamese also have an additional influence from the French, who colonized their country for hundreds of years, and it’s evidenced by the banh mi sandwich and the addition of sausage in their cooking as well as meat pastes that look and taste very much like pate.

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Durian’s pan-fried chive dumplings

Representing the Kingdom of Thailand, Durian, at 147 Chatsworth Ave. in Larchmont, is the complete package.

I often find Asian restaurants in the U.S. have great food, but are completely lacking in atmosphere or they have too much atmosphere and terrible lighting. Normally, I prefer to go for a weekday lunch or Sunday night dinner with the kids, but I’m not making a reservation for a Saturday night.

Durian changed my mind.
I went for lunch on a beautiful August day and there were several tables set outside with umbrellas. This section of Chats­worth Avenue tends not to be as busy as others and I would have been happy to eat outside, but I wanted to get a feel of the place so we chose a table inside. The décor has an Asian feel, yet it’s done in a tasteful, funky sort of way. Durian has a small but functional bar on one side of the restaurant at which I could envision having a drink before dinner or, if there were no tables, I’d be happy to sit and eat at the bar.

The lunch menu is extensive and yet there are even more choices for dinner. A very interesting amuse bouche is offered—
crackling rice crackers that look like rice crispy treats with a dip that is extremely spicy, so tread lightly. We started with shrimp and pork shumai in spicy soy vinaigrette, pan fried chive dumplings and a papaya salad. Each dish was inhaled and enjoyed with fervor. For me, the papaya salad is a barometer of taste for a Thai restaurant and it was fresh, crunchy, full of flavor and had just the right amount of heat.

For our main courses, we shared a shrimp pad thai, a massamun chicken curry, a green coconut curry and a thai fried rice. Let’s just say there were no leftovers to take home. The bill comes to the table with a tiny wrapped piece of what I think is dried tamarind. It was the only part of the meal I didn’t enjoy. It left my mouth quivering, and not in a good way.

Representing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Saigonese, at 158 South Central Ave. in  Hartsdale, claims to be the only authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Westchester County. I spent some time looking online for other, inauthentic Vietnamese restaurants and couldn’t even find one, so this might be the only place in Westchester to find the holy grail of noodle soup: pho. Pronounced “fuh,” this signature noodle dish is done quite well at Saigonese. The soup base is crucial to a good pho and theirs is pretty spot-on. The noodles had just the right bite, the beef brisket tender and the sprouts crunchy. As is typical in Vietnam, the bowl was served alongside several small dishes of add-ons like basil leaves and fresh lime, hoisin and chili sauce. The pho was big enough to share as a side dish, but I look forward to returning on a cold winter day for my own bowl.
We also ordered spring rolls with ground pork, chicken, shrimp and vermicelli that were wrapped in rice paper and fried. These were served with the quintessential lettuce leaves that you wrap around the outside of the spring roll, dip in the special sauce and eat. They were deliciously crunchy and flavorful.

Any time a papaya salad is on the menu, I’m ordering it. This one was fresh and had all the necessary ingredients, but wasn’t spicy enough for me—the rest of my family was quite happy with its neutrality.

Our main courses consisted of fried tofu with scallions cooked in a clay pot and served with rice, which was fine, but I wouldn’t order it again.

Our favorite was Banh Hoi Chao Tom, grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane served on thin rice noodles that you wrap inside lettuce leaves with fresh mint and then dip in the special sauce. I wasn’t too sure about what to do with the sugar cane and the waitress explained that you just sort of chew it up and suck on it. I passed on the fun; having the shrimp cook on the cane was enough to give it a really nice, slightly sweet flavor that balanced well with the pungent special sauce.

The outside of the restaurant is a bit misleading and, once inside, you get a better vibe, but I still wouldn’t make it my Saturday night out. The décor lends itself more to the typical Asian restaurant environment.

Both of these restaurants are now on my short list of go-to
places when I have a yen for Asia.
“I’m always on the lookout
for a great story, an amazing restaurant, an unusual day trip
or a must-see cultural event in
Westchester County.”

TO CONTACT LISA, email
lisa@hometwn.com.
And you can follow her on Twitter,
@westchesterwand