MANGO STICKY RICE DESSERT: Traditional Thai and Vietnamese food with a twist.
What’s three times better than a Vietnamese restaurant? A really pretty one, such as Zenna Noodle Bar, that serves some Thai dishes and adds fresh, seasonal vegetables to the classics without distorting them. Thus the “Zenna noodle soup” ($7.25) here is Vietnamese pho, but with the wonderful additions of fresh carrot slices, snow peas, shreds of yellow summer squash, and even bits of broccoli.
Zenna Noodle Bar | 1374 Beacon Street, Brookline | Open Mon–Thurs, 11 am–10:30 pm; Fri & Sat, 11 am–11 pm; and Sun, 3–10 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access | 617.566.0566
The room in which this “Vietnamese fusion” cuisine is served is modern and handsome, with one long ochre wall, one purple-maroon, and niches for parts of the menu that have been blown up to serve as wall art. Little tables give a cozy feeling to the large space, which is further enlivened by a Vietnamese pop love of mambo and tango.
The menu proper at Zenna is divided arbitrarily into earth, air, fire, and water. Well, earth-as-salads and water-as-soup aren’t so arbitrary, I guess. But fire for stir-fries is a small stretch, and air for noodles is a full lotus position into which my brain cannot bend.
Fortunately, the mouth has no such conceptual problems. Fresh summer rolls ($6.25/tofu; $6.95/chicken and shrimp) are wonderful, uncooked spring rolls with translucent rice-paper fillings, beautifully rolled and cut like sushi, with a tasty peanut dip. Noodles and shredded vegetables dominate the flavor, though shrimp and chicken tastes also come through.
Banh xeo ($6.95/vegetables; $7.95/shrimp and chicken), the classic Vietnamese omelet-crêpe, is small but richly flavorful, served with lots of handsome salad and a carrot that has been cut, Thai style, into a flower. Satay skewers ($6.95) are not as strongly marinated as they might have been in a Thai restaurant, but the beef is close. The two sauces, peanut and fish sauce/vinegar nuoc cham, are sure to pique one’s interest.
Butterfly shrimp ($8.95) — now there’s one for the air menu — are actually tempura, with lots of vegetables, including the purple Okinawan sweet potatoes, as well as more familiar carrots, eggplant, green beans, and onions. It’s served with . . . tomato ketchup. But tomato ketchup itself is a fusion of a Malay soy sauce with Euro-American tomatoes, so it couldn’t be more appropriate, and it actually complemented fried veggies and shrimp better than I thought it would.
Back to the Zenna noodle soup, though. Pho has to be rated first on the broth, and Zenna’s is lighter in color but meatier (and less sweet or spicy) in flavor than most. It still has the hint of anise, which you can amplify by adding Asian basil leaves, which are served on the side, along with bean sprouts and a piece of fresh lime. Sliced beef and meatballs are simpler fillings than you’d find in pho dac biet in a full-tilt Vietnamese restaurant, but the increased variety of vegetables more than makes up for that, and the cilantro, scallions, sliced onion, and lemongrass flavors are nicely balanced. Pho is a rice-noodle soup, which I have learned to eat with an Asian spoon in one hand and chopsticks (very good for picking up noodles) in the other. But Zenna has only chopsticks, not spoons; instead, it sets typical European (and Thai) flatware. The side sauces are a deadly chili paste and hoisin, both traditional, neither of which I use on decent pho.
Noodle-wise, we tried pad see ew ($8.95/vegetable; $9.95/chicken, beef, or pork). The pad Thai here is popular, but with three other fine Thai restaurants in the neighborhood, we went for wide, soft noodles, rather like Chinese chow foon, without the wok burn. Here, they were prepared in a Chinese-style stir-fry of vegetables and sliced chicken in brown gravy.
Chicken mango curry ($11.95) is made with Thai yellow curry, the dry version of an Indian-style spice (the Massaman curry is the sweet one), all the better with semi-ripe mango chunks, sliced chicken breast, and western tomatoes with red and green bell peppers. Tamarind duck ($15.95), a house specialty, is boned and batter-fried, then hacked up and decorated with sweet-sour tamarind sauce. The duck is quite good, especially alongside contrasting dishes. But the accompanying vegetables, mostly broccoli and straw mushrooms, were far too sweet.
Chili-lime seafood salad ($14.95) was not the shredded salad I expected, though the flavors of lemongrass, fish sauce, and a bit of hot pepper were there. The fusion idea here resulted in the light grilling of seafood, instead of the traditional stir-frying or shredding of vegetables. It was most effective on the squid, scored to make “dragon scales,” but also fun on the shrimp and scallops. The salad is sort of underneath, so you have to remind yourself to make little multi-texture bites in the Vietnamese manner.
Beer and wine are available, including Tsingtao ($4), the fine Chinese lager. Continuing the fusion theme, there’s Vietnamese coffee ($2.50), which has condensed milk, and Thai iced tea ($2.50), which is scented with vanilla. Sparkling limeade ($3) is genuinely refreshing.
The cuisines of Southeast Asia are blessed with fresh tropical fruits, and have never developed much in the way of composed desserts. Mango sticky rice ($4.50) is the most traditional here. It’s rice cooked in coconut milk and sweetened by a sliced (almost ripe) mango. Banana flambé ($4.50) is deceptively named. It’s actually four fried, wrapped packages of banana, as sweet as McDonald’s fried pies, with a lot of ice cream (ask for the ginger, which is vanilla with ginger chunks). Or you can opt for the ice cream ($3) alone, which also comes in green tea and coconut. There’s tiramisu ($4.50), as well. But we didn’t want to try it.
Service at Zenna was quite good on two visits, and the restaurant is large enough to get seated right away at all but peak times.
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