Japan-Vietnam alliance flourishes


At a time when a new sushi bar or Japanese steakhouse seems to be popping up every minute, it's not a bad idea to take another look at the Japanese restaurants that have been around long enough to prove themselves. Minato in Mount Vernon is one of those places, and it has the added distinction of being paired with Cafe Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant.

Actually that's not quite accurate. About a year after Minato opened, owners Alex Tran and Henry Wong decided to divide their space, five rooms in all, into two restaurants. That was in 1997. But somewhere along the way, the idea of two separate restaurants was dropped, although the two names stand. Now you can sit in whatever dining room you want and order from either menu. If half your table feels like Vietnamese food and the other half, sushi, that's fine.

Don't expect much in the way of either Japanese or Vietnamese decor. When the space first opened, it was the Washington Place Grill; the current look of the basement restaurant isn't all that different. It still has the exposed brick walls, plants and appointments that suggest an American cafe -- although the bar has turned into a sushi bar.

I like it. It's a bit of a change from the serene neutrals of most Japanese restaurants around here.

As for the food, Minato has all the traditional sushi you could possibly want, as well as some innovative maki, or rolls, that might tickle your fancy. Yellow Diamond maki, for instance, pairs buttery soft avocado and a little spicy, crisply fried shrimp to good effect, swaddling the contrasting tastes and textures in nori (seaweed) and rice. Other appetizers with A-list credentials are the dainty shumai, dumplings stuffed with crab meat; edamame (gently salted soy bean pods; you suck the soy beans out); and a deliciously vinegary seaweed salad that will remind you of spinach if you aren't familiar with it. The satisfying "house special soup" with shrimp and vegetables comes across as a little sour and a little spicy, but not thickened like Chinese hot and sour soup so it seems more delicate. Cane shrimp rolls end up being a less exciting starter, in spite of the intriguing name. The shrimp meat is wrapped around a strip of sugar cane and fried, not grilled as the menu promises.

Cafe Viet's pho is particularly appealing this time of year (this time of year being when there may be a ton of snow on the ground). It's a large bowl of meat stock flavored with fish sauce, the Vietnamese condiment that's the equivalent of soy sauce to Chinese. The steaming broth overflows with rice noodles and thin slices of beef. To decorate it, a plate of bean sprouts, fresh coriander, green chiles and lemon slices comes on the side. Need more pow? There's also a small dish of hoisin sauce with a spoonful of chile paste at its center. You spoon in as much heat as your taste buds can handle.

Any of the dishes with lemon grass will introduce you to some traditional flavors of Vietnamese food, but the fragrant herb goes particularly well with seafood. The lemon grass stir-fry of shrimp and vegetables has great appeal, although covered in brown sauce it's pretty ugly.

Minato's bento box is a steal at $15.95. The lacquered, compartmentalized box contains an assortment of Japanese foods and comes with miso soup and rice. What's nice about Minato's version is that you get to choose from four categories: sushi or a roll; dumplings, calamari or tofu; grilled or teriyaki-style meat; and a fourth category that includes breaded pork cutlet, fried shrimp, fried red snapper, chicken sesame or vegetable teriyaki. (OK, as a category it doesn't make much sense.) Unexpectedly, the tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet, is a highlight, involving thin strips of pork very delicately fried.

Dinner at Minato and Cafe Viet ends with ice cream (red bean or green tea) or sherbet (mango or lychee). The sherbets win hands down as far as I'm concerned, their fruity flavors soothing any residual fire from the spicy Vietnamese dishes.

Eating at Minato and Cafe Viet won't transport you to Japan or to Vietnam. This isn't a bad thing. It's just another example of how the lines are blurring, and it's no longer clear that these are "foreign" foods. You can sit at the sushi bar and enjoy traditional sushi and sashimi, or sit at a table and mix and match your Asian dishes. Hey, you can even wash them down with a glass of merlot.

Minato and Cafe Viet

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 800 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner every night

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$10.50; main courses, $7.95-$18

Call: 410-332-0332

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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