Vietnamese food is a particularly attractive combination of fresh ingredients and familiar Asian flavors. Add the current popularity of its steamy noodle soup, pho, and it's no wonder that right now, Vietnamese food is hot, hot, hot.
Indochine, which opened last May in an unassuming storefront in a Midtown stretch of Charles Street, covers the Vietnamese bases, from simple appetizers like rolls and dumplings to traditionally flavored rice dishes. And, of course, there's pho. The food is top-notch, though the space and service still feel like works in progress.
Scene & Decor On our visit, we almost walked right past Indochine without realizing it was there. The building is marked by a low sign, and it wasn't initially clear which door leads to the restaurant (hint: it's the door to the left of the sign).
Inside, Indochine had the feel of a cool, but not quite finished, post-college apartment. The Charles Street building has great architectural flourishes, including ornate fireplaces and tons of natural light, plus a few funky touches, like bright blue paint in the back of the two-room space.
Cool as the decor was, it also felt unfinished, thanks to corners stacked with piles of papers and boxes and a black drop ceiling that looked practical but clunky.
Even if the space was casual, it was welcoming — and during our Wednesday night visit, it was about half full with a combination of friends, solo diners and young families.
Appetizer We started our meal with a plate full of xui cao chien. The fried dumplings ($5.95), served with a sweet and slightly spicy dipping sauce, were crispy and satisfying.
The pastry, thick and fried until it crunched, encapsulated a well-seasoned little bundle of pork and herbs.
Entrees Our entrees were equally well constructed. Com chien la que, a plate filled with fried rice mixed with basil, chilies, red pepper and pork ($11.95), looked enormous, but the flavor combination was so appealing we ate every bite.
Indochine is likely to become well-known for its pho. We opted for the tom muc — pho with shrimp and calamari ($10.95 for small, $12.95 for large) — and were treated to a bowl full of noodles mingling with large, nicely cooked shrimp and cylindrical pieces of calamari, artfully carved into textured tubes. Even the small serving was generous.
The soup was steaming hot when it arrived alongside the traditional plate of extras, including bean sprouts, basil, sliced jalapenos and lime for squeezing. The interactive element of pho is part of the fun, as are the many utensils it requires (we ate with a combination of chopsticks, spoon and fork).
The restaurant's version includes a richer broth than some places offer. We added the vegetables, herbs and lime and doctored the soup a bit with soy sauce, hoisin sauce and Sriracha, but even without those additions, it was full of savory flavor.
Drinks The restaurant has a beer and wine license, but we were happy with water and a cafe sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee ($4.50). It arrived in parts: the coffee was brewing in a small coffee press set over a mug. A tall glass filled with ice was for serving. When the coffee finished filtering, we stirred it — the bottom of the mug was coated with sweet condensed milk — and poured it over the ice, creating a cool drink that was thick, sweet, rich and slightly bitter.
Dessert During our visit, Indochine wasn't yet offering dessert.
Service Like the space, the service felt full of good intentions and promise, but it lacked polish. Our waiter was as nice as could be, as was the manager roaming the room, but they were hesitant when we asked questions and we experienced a few lags, most notably when we were in search of the check.
But even with those missteps, Indochine was a good experience. The food rises above any glitches in service or imperfections in the space. Far above.
Back story: Vietnamese restaurant Indochine opened on Charles Street in May. The owner, Amy Nguyen, is no stranger to Vietnamese cuisine; her family runs the Pho Hiep Hoa restaurants in Wheaton and Silver Spring.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Indochine's pho is impressive, with clean, well-seasoned broth, piles of noodles plus crisp bean sprouts, jalapenos and basil for seasoning. The seafood pho, with large shrimp and intricately cut calamari, was lovely, with the seafood cooked until just springy.
Where: 1015 North Charles Street, Baltimore
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: New Vietnamese spot in Midtown lacks polish but the food is deliciousCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun