The barn-like appearance of Saigonese Restaurant, at 158 S. Central Avenue in Hartsdale, left me pleasantly off guard when I saw the comfortable interior. A fairly large open space, well lit thanks to the sunlight streaming through large windows, was segmented by unexpected brick arches, adorned with colorful lanterns. Ceiling fans hanging from a vaulted ceiling spin lazily, evoking the balmy, tropical climate of Saigon.
Saigonese bills itself as “The very first Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine in Westchester” and, to my knowledge it is the only Vietnamese restaurant in the county, period. I am constantly amazed at the way Vietnamese food lags behind other Asian cuisines as far as widespread popularity and one visit to Saigonese served to heighten my bewilderment. Whereas some rely on heavy sauces, Vietnamese food has a light brightness brought by the utilization of acids rather than oils, extensive use of fresh herbs and a deft balance of sweet and pungent, spicy and refreshing, chewy and crunchy.
Both appetizers sampled highlighted this delicate culinary high wire act. The Exotic Saigon Roll (Bo Bia Sai Gon, $6 for 2 rolls) was wrapped in a thin, translucent rice paper which yielded easily, exposing a slew of textural and flavorful contrasts. Crunchy jicama and crispy lettuce played beautifully off the slight chew of a Vietnamese sausage whose funkiness was offset by sweet fresh basil. A classic peanut dipping sauce complimented the flavors perfectly.
A salad of shredded mango and carrots (Goi Xoai Song, $9) was surprisingly complex. The sweetness of the mango made the included shrimp seem almost earthy by comparison. Red onion added a bracing bite to the dish while roasted peanuts brought a welcome crunch. Fresh herbs, including basil again, enhanced the sweetness of the dish while adding more facets to the flavor profile.
Hot dishes showed the same attention to detail and ability to balance contrasting flavors. Modestly titled Beef In Grape Leaf (Banh Hoi Bo La Lot, $13) was rather more involved than its name would imply. Marinated ground beef is wrapped in grape leaves and served thin rice noodles, mint, scallions, cucumber and pickled carrots. All of these disparate elements are meant to be wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped into, what the menu calls, fish sauce. Fish sauce is a pungent liquid, made from fermented anchovies, that is typical to the cuisines of Southeast Asia. It can have a rather strong aroma and flavor, but here was artfully mixed with vinegar and sugar. The resulting sweet and sour sauce was the perfect accompaniment to the dish. The interaction involved, stuffing the lettuce leaves and eating with your hands brought a playfulness to the course that was quite appreciated.
The beloved Vietnamese noodle soup, Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’, though the table of four next to me kept painfully referring to it as ‘foe’) was previously limited to Brooklyn hipsters and New York City denizens and sparked heated debates about whose was best. While a single example may not allow us a horse in that race, Saigonese at least gives us a chance to join the conversation.
There are numerous options involving beef brisket, rib-eye, meatballs, shredded chicken and numerous combinations of all. I ordered a seafood soup (Mi Saigonese, $9.50) which contained tender squid, plump shrimp and fish ball, topped with fresh scallions and cilantro. The broth was incredibly fragrant and the addition of fried onions was another point for textural awareness. The noodles had the proper amount of chew and were eminently slurpable (if I may invent a word). It was perfectly warm and satisfying in a lighter, less hearty manner than we’ve come to associate with winter soups. If chicken soup has staked out the soul then Vietnamese pho has taken the spirit. On a freezing cold day, I left Saigonese feeling fortified. What more can we ask of a meal?