Nam: Home-Grown And Hip

Art of the Meal

Being a restaurant critic in Atlanta is a little like being a professional traveler. In the first years after I moved here from New York, I was delighted to find some of the more esoteric treats I enjoyed there and on globe-trotting jaunts - peasant French and Italian cooking, Chinese dim sum, Japanese yakitori, Indian thali.





In more recent years, Atlanta's international dining scene has exploded. I've visited Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Somalian, Slovakian, West Indian, Peruvian and Eritrean restaurants.





Of all the cuisines I've sampled, I have one enduring favorite: Vietnamese. I envy those who've never tried it, because tasting it for the first time is an unfolding surprise. Any country's cuisine is a literal oral tradition, relating its history and agriculture, and Vietnam's is no exception.





Generations of French colonization left an indelible imprint; the most notable twist on this Chinese-influenced food is its delicate French flair.





Until recently, Atlanta's Vietnamese restaurants were mostly limited to inexpensive pho (noodle soup) shops, many of them near Buford Highway. But second-generation Vietnamese restaurateurs have opened some stylish new places, like Saigon Cafe in Duluth, Panasia in Roswell, Viet Chateau in Decatur and now Nam, in midtown.



Brothers Alex and Chris Kinjo first took the city by storm with their tiny, whip-smart MF Sushibar (the "MF," they said, stood for "magic fingers").





Nam was the logical next step for the half-Japanese, half-Vietnamese brothers, who wanted to showcase their mother's cooking as much as their father's culinary heritage. Taking over a small, former ice cream parlor on Monroe Drive, the brothers made bold statements in color (stark white, deep reds, black and chrome) and softened the feel with big murals and tall-stemmed sprigs of bamboo on every table.





While bowing to the traditional noodle dishes, Nam also pays tribute to the depth and diversity of Vietnamese cooking, with Cornish hen, clay pot shrimp, sweet-spicy caramel sauces and "shaking" filet mignon. The imperial rolls, or cha ghio, are hands down the best in town. These lighter, smaller, more varied versions of the Chinese egg roll are wrapped in crisp rice paper and twice-fried, the first time in a light egg wash to cast them faintly ochre. You wrap these shrimp, pork, glass noodle and mushroom-packed missiles, still hot, in cool lettuce and cilantro. Double-dip to your heart's content in fish sauce, a vinegary, sugary, salty concoction with julienned carrot.





The rice flour tamales pull Nam miles ahead of its closest competitor: Banana-leaf envelopes open to reveal a postcard-sized panel of steamed, rice-flour pabulum, topped with minced pork, shrimp and scallion. You top it with more potent, saline sauce, flecked with Thai peppers, eating it with a large spoon. If you like dim sum, you'll like these grown-up baby food textures and flavors.





Among the salads, I love the tart, shredded sour green mango with grilled shrimp, fresh mint, purple-tinged Vietnamese basil and crushed peanuts. Nam's small but thoughtful wine list includes my favorite crisp-floral viognier, Pennautier ($8 by the glass).





A few less-than-stellar dishes remain on the menu, like clay pot shrimp (too dry) and grilled beef and shrimp (just fine, but lacking the signature authority of many of Nam's best dishes). But once you've had something like the "shaking" filet mignon - cubed and flash sauteed with garlic, onion, with a subtle sweetness - or the tiny, delectable grilled Cornish hen, or the bubbling clay pot of mildly nuanced caramel-sauced catfish, you'll want to come back. The grilled Japanese eggplant is the best I've ever had anywhere - you scoop the beautifully white, ginger-scented soft flesh from the collapsed purple skin onto your plate. If you're after dessert, you'll probably want to go elsewhere - Nam stays true to tradition and offers nothing fancier than coconut ice cream.





Nam reminds me why Atlanta is such an exciting place to live right now - we get to witness the birth of the next generation's American dream.







Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.



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