When a server asks, "Have you eaten here before?," it always seems like a trick question. Say yes, and you wonder what advice they were about to impart. Say no, and you may be setting yourself up for a lengthy discourse. When servers have a lot of explaining to do, it's usually a dining "concept" — not just dinner — that is about to be revealed.
At Bambuza, a little introduction to the food is probably not a bad idea. The Nguyen family's new Vietnamese bistro is literally in the shadow of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, a crossroads for out-of-town conventioneers, and while Vietnamese food may soon become as familiar as Thai food, it is still unexplored terrain for a lot of people.
After decades of experience in the Asian fast-food business, Daniel Nguyen and his parents wanted to open a Seattle-area restaurant that would be a creative outlet for Daniel's mother, Lan Quach, who was born in Rach Gia, a city south of Saigon.
Hoping to create a prototype for other Bambuza's to come, the Nguyens didn't stint on the design. They hired the experienced local firm of Mesher Shing & Associates, who have filled this contemporary space with color and light. Many of the decorative touches were imported from Vietnam, including the bentwood chairs, wooden chopsticks in woven sheaths and flame-red paper lanterns that drop dramatically from the high ceilings.
If you let them, the servers will explain that Bambuza's menu is loosely structured. Starting at the top are small plates (think appetizers); at the bottom is more substantial fare (think entrees). As in most Asian eateries, whatever you order is likely to arrive all at once and sharing is encouraged.
Quach creates traditional Vietnamese specialties, including salad rolls, sugar-cane-skewered shrimp and stuffed crepes, along with other Asian-style fare that will seem more familiar to Americans: spring rolls, stir-fries, curries, satays, seared ahi, teriyaki-glazed tenderloin and even crab cakes. The kitchen's able execution of her recipes makes for pleasant grazing.
Shrimp turns up a lot: Flash-fried whole in rice paper wrappers ($8), they remain plump and juicy; minced and formed around sugar-cane skewers then quickly browned ($8), the shrimp meat tastes almost like pork.
Coconut milk flavors a finely nuanced yellow curry revealing prawns, potato, carrot, red pepper, cabbage and tomato ($10), while prawns and pork prove their affinity for each other in a bright-yellow turmeric crepe ($10). The coconut milk and rice-flour batter is folded omeletlike around the seafood, meat and vegetables. Shredded cabbage, asparagus, jicama and bean sprouts lend crunch. To eat it Vietnamese-style, cut a piece, wrap it in a lettuce leaf and add the sauce of your choice from an assortment that may include peanut, tamarind, plum, chili or nuoc mam, a potent fish sauce.
The sweet and tangy peanut sauce, sort of like Vietnamese ketchup, is served with the salad rolls ($6): fat packages of holy basil, chicken, vermicelli and crunchy vegetables wrapped in cool, translucent rice paper. Black-bean sauce swaddles long beans and seared tofu ($5). Ginger-steeped nuoc mam perks up pan-seared duck breast ($12), tender if a little dry under its crisp skin. But the listless green papaya salad with it was a far cry from the frolicsome mix of lime-kissed, basil-laced shredded fruit and vegetables topped with crushed peanuts that I enjoyed on another visit.
Pho ($10), the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, is available here only at lunch. Discouraged from ordering it once ("Too heavy for summer, the sodium will bloat you and besides you can get it lots of other places," said the waiter), I tried again and found the seafood version light and alluring, with shrimp, bits of squid, shiitakes, scallions and greens lurking among the rice noodles. You can and should augment the concoction with the condiments provided: fresh basil, lime, jalapeño, hoisin and chili sauce.
The friendly and informative servers are sometimes less attentive to detail than one could wish and occasionally too eager to educate when all you want to do is eat. I noticed the waiter who steered us clear of the pho address a party of five at great length, practically performing the menu, dish by dish. The group's expressions varied from bored to bemused to why-didn't-we-just-go-to-The-Cheesecake-Factory.
Why, indeed. At that emporium of good old American excess, just two blocks down the hill, hordes camp out on the sidewalk day and night waiting for a seat, while too many of those handsome granite-topped tables at Bambuza sit empty.
That may change if the Nguyens succeed in adding a bar and lounge, which they hope to do in the not-too-distant future. At the moment, beverages include a good selection of wines and beers, orange and limeade and elegant fruit smoothies.
Just imagine how a sturdy cocktail or two might loosen the inhibitions of even the most middle-of-the-road Midwesterner, who might be bamboozled into forgoing The Cheesecake Factory for something they probably can't get back home.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org