nytimes.com – SARAH GOLD
The vision for Everett and Linda Reid’s new restaurant began, like so many dreams, over a meal in Paris. But it was not a traditional French cafe that sparked the couple’s imagination, during that visit more than 20 years ago. Rather, it was the City of Light’s most famous Vietnamese eatery, Tan Dinh, still a fixture on the Seventh Arrondissement’s Rue de Verneuil.
“We were so taken by the complexity of the flavors, and how beautifully they worked together,” remembered Ms. Reid, who with her husband, a chef, had already opened American Seasons, the first of several restaurants on their then-home island of Nantucket, Mass. “We wondered, ‘Could we do something like this?’ But we let the idea simmer for a long time.”
As any good restaurateur knows, though, slow cooking can yield the richest flavors. And judging by the sophisticated, playful and robust French-Vietnamese fare offered at the Reids’ latest venture, Good Elephant, they dished up their concept at exactly the right moment.
The couple, who for the past six years have run Restaurant L&E;, a classic French bistro in Chester, their adopted hometown, had spent a while pondering what to do with the attic apartment above it. Briefly, they lived in it, despite what Ms. Reid called its “hideous, 1950s-style” décor; then, after renovating and replacing what had been the bedroom with a modern kitchen, they used the space to host private dinners and special events.
Finally, about a year ago, Mr. Reid and his sous-chef Joe Roberto took what they had learned over the years about French-Vietnamese cookery, and began putting together Good Elephant’s menu. The Reids filled the attic space with Asian antiques (inlaid wall panels, lantern-style lamps, a large midcentury painted wooden horse), covered some black-lacquer tables with decoupage vintage postcards from Vietnam and opened for business in April.
Climbing the vertiginous stairs to the restaurant recently with friends (after entering a door marked with an elephant-head knocker), we were welcomed by the scents of sizzling meat, garlic and ginger. Our appetites whetted, we took a table at the far end of the petite, slope-shouldered dining room, and staved off our pangs with some excellent cocktails — the best of which was a Red Lotus vodka martini, infused with lychee, dragon fruit purée and a hint of cranberry. I later learned that Peter Simmons, our genial server and headwaiter, helped design the drink.
What followed was a parade of gorgeously composed, vibrantly flavored dishes, some of which obeyed the rules of traditional French-Vietnamese cuisine and others that veered cleverly away. The unanimous favorites that night included two starters: a golden-edged rice cake flecked with peekytoe crab meat and crispy fried scallions, topped with a dollop of lemongrass aioli; and a deep bowl of steamed littleneck clams in a broth rich with rice wine, Thai chilies, butter, ginger and cilantro. (Sadly, just two toasted bread slices accompanied this dish; we could have torn up a whole loaf for dipping.)
The main courses we tried were also across-the-board strong. A clear standout, though, was Mr. Reid’s hefty, messy, utterly delicious take on a banh mi — Vietnam’s traditional baguette sandwich — stuffed in this case with spicy poached-pork meatballs, a generous smear of sesame paste and a slaw of radish, bean sprouts and shreds of sweet dried papaya. Much lighter, but just as good, was a delicate pan-fried filet of red snapper, served atop a tangle of rice noodles, chopped Chinese celery, pineapple and shrimp. We passed on dessert that night in favor of a round of lychee Bellinis.
A second visit left me, and my companions, equally impressed. This time, we tried pairing our dinner choices with wine, and found that a dry, fruity Vin de Pays du Vaucluse Blanc perfectly complemented the fresh, zingy flavors of a Southeast Asian-style shrimp cocktail — a mélange of chili-lime seasoned prawns, fresh mango, pineapple and watermelon that ended up being my favorite dish on the menu (and possibly of the summer).
A Chinon Cuvée Terroir from the Loire Valley also held its own alongside what were probably the two heartiest preparations: a pair of five-spice glazed confit duck legs, sauced with a candied-orange, mint and lemon grass broth over rice noodles; and a Flintstones-sized rack of sticky, hoisin-coated, barbecued baby back ribs, accompanied by pickled-cabbage slaw and a heap of house-made sweet-potato chips (all sensibly served on a cutting board rather than a plate). A shared dessert of silky ginger-lemon grass pot de crème, topped with candied ginger brittle, made a superb chaser.
Apart from a few tiny laments (I would have liked a bit more broth in my chicken pho), and the fact that my party all found the restaurant’s modern, slope-sided dishware precariously tippy (a few of us ended up wearing as well as eating the pot de crème), we left Good Elephant feeling marvelously satisfied. Our experience, we agreed, had been transporting — a sensory trip to a more exotic locale.
We were glad, though, to have chosen a designated driver.