Saturday, August 22, 2015


Here is a classic.  I was sort of begrudging having to dine here: Indochine is a way-back, play-back has-been with nothing new (right?) to offer, and I didn't even recall it being that magnificent to begin with.   But I did remember the room, which hasn't changed a wink.  Enormous bouquets of palm fronds and lilies dominate the decor, shadowed by leafy fronds painted in green on all the walls.  It is dark inside, which wasn't so much alluring and moody as just plain dark.  But once the food came out, I lost any misplaced misgivings.  Indochine is still (as good as it ever did!) putting out some really fine cuisine.

And they were swift of service as well.  We came in a slightly larger group than anticipated, and an extra table leaf was brought in without a hiccup to provide adequate elbow room for our party.  There wasn't really even a blink before our drinks were ordered and served: a mojito was brisk, balanced and refreshing.   The wine list had my sort-of-obscure favorite (Picpoul de Pinet) as well as three others that I also love, so it was almost hard to decide (were it not that Picpoul is so fun to say).  Luckily too, it paired perfectly with the bold Vietnamese flavors.   And bold they are, funky and fishy and times, tart and piquant.  The Lotus Salad comprised all of those elements, with the freshness of cool bean sprouts and tender shrimp.  It had a gentle latent kick,
hitting only after a few chews, as if to remind you it wasn't just an ordinary salad.   But even Indochine can't escape from the ubiquitous kale salad, ebbing from some of the more trend-setting restaurants, but their version was solid.  Roasted seaweed and crispy shallots augmented the nuttiness of the toothsome kale, which was shredded into a pleasant tidbits easily managed with chopsticks.

My favorite dish by far (by FAR!) was the grilled eggplant.  Eggplant so often suffers from its sponge-like attributes, becoming so laden with grease that all of its vegetative benefits are almost annihilated.  But Indochine keeps it pure by grilling it assertively, so that the flavor comes
 from a smoky char and a bright kick of coriander and cilantro nudged with sesame and soy.  Each halved plant is portioned into bite-
sized squares, so delightful and easy to eat I had to effortfully keep myself from filling up on
this dish alone (we ordered a lot).  Fresh little summer rolls of shrimp and chicken showed up simultaneously, and they stack up neatly, served with a thick, zippy peanut sauce for dipping.   Little fried rolls of vegetables and chicken were more finger-foody treats,
 crisp and not too greasy- lightened further wrapped in crunch-tastic leaves of iceberg lettuce and a refreshing seasoned vinegar.  A crispy bean curd salad featured tofu more chewy than crispy, but tossed with a fetching salad of pea and corn shoots, could easily serve as a vegetarian entree.   The real clincher in the salad is the corn shoots: lovely, slightly sweet, nutty leaves, pale yellow and tender... and (in my opinion) sorely underutilized.  I hope to see these elsewhere now that they're on my radar- so
 far, the corn shoots and the eggplant dish alone would warrant a return to Indochine (or an ingredient search on   Tightly wrapped Steamed Vietnamese ravioli (ravioli? Really?  They're not even remotely ravioli-shaped: can't we just call them dumplings?) arrive in woven baskets, their lids open with a burst of fragrant vapors (the blur in the picture is not poor focus, but a thick waft of steam).  They are stuffed with more chicken and shrimp, this time adding shiitakes to keep them from being too similar to the summer rolls.  The fragrant tuft of steam is an enticing harbinger, and crisp fried onions atop contribute a nice allium crunch.  Vegetarian Stew is the non-meat-eaters concession: it's a fine, light curry of myriad vegetables in a ruddy broth, but lacked much depth.  And as proof that brussels
sprouts (much as I adore them) have no place in Vietnamese cuisine, these woefully undercooked ones lurking below the surface should be left to more familiar stomping grounds, bobbing like raw-ish green buoys, astray in foreign waters.    Slippery shiitakes were the highlight here: all the other vegs could've used a little more stove time.

The most popular dessert at Indochine is the roasted wrapped in sweet rice, alongside a cool puddle of thin coconut milk tapioca.  It's a little starchy and dense for me; I preferred the tapioca element to the dense, sweet rice, but for a bite or two held enough appeal.  A toasty sprinkle of sesame benefitted both sides.

The menu has changed little since it's opening in 1984, but even after three decades, Indochine is one of the few New York institutions that seems to be retaining its popularity (and moreover, its ability to keep up with the cockamamie real estate situation in this fair city).  I guess as long as it keeps up what it is doing, in combination with reliable quality and the nostalgia of the experience, with any luck, Indochine could probably survive to celebrate a golden anniversary.

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