Even when the fare of Vietnam is found in modest storefront restaurants pretty much bereft of amenities, it can be worth seeking out.
So it’s a real bonus when you encounter savory beef and rice-noodle soups, elegant rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls, and grilled meats perfumed with lemongrass and basil in a handsome setting. Da Nang Restaurant, which celebrated its first anniversary in March, is such a place. It’s in a highly visible location on the northeast corner of Main and 14 Mile in downtown Clawson. The sturdy and fully renovated 1924 building, with an almost imposing exterior, has trim brown awnings appearing like eyelashes above the row of street-facing windows.
The two dining rooms, which seat just 56 patrons between them, are done up stylishly, with deep-red walls, mirrors framed in black wrought iron, decorative woodwork, and a soft glow from Mission-style hanging lamps. Dark brocade draperies gathered to the side of the windows add a luxurious touch. Linen napkins are black, tablecloths white. It’s lovely, but nothing at first glance suggests the ethnicity of the fare.
The beauty of Vietnam is quietly depicted through still photographs that are projected as a gentle slideshow on a flat screen in the high-ceilinged front dining room. The images reveal seaside scenes, markets, and the countryside of proprietor Kim Dao-Waldis’ homeland. It’s the ideal décor touch, bringing Vietnam into the space in a subtle way.
In the second dining room, small framed photographs of the mineral rocks in the waters near Da Nang, from which she and several members of her family escaped in 1978 in their father’s fishing boat — “a tiny dot in the ocean,” as Dao-Waldis remembers it — are the only other indications of her nationality.
The understated setting allows the colorful food, meticulously presented on pure white china, to be the focal point — something vital to the proprietor, who named the restaurant for the city where she was born in 1968.
About the clean, crisp décor, she says, “I wanted something modern, yet with a little bit of the feel of French Colonial (alluding to the history of Vietnam), with colors warm and soothing. I didn’t want to over-decorate.”
Dao-Waldis came to Michigan after an eight-month stop in Taiwan following the family’s flight from the oppression in post-war Vietnam. An older brother, who had fled in 1975, was already in Michigan, and he was able to sponsor the family. It wasn’t until 1990 that the rest of the large family was able to relocate to the United States.
For years before opening Da Nang, Dao-Waldis, who studied business administration and human resources in college, had the idea of opening a restaurant tucked away in the back of her mind. So when her job at a manufacturing company was abruptly eliminated, she felt the time was right to act — despite the recession.
She snapped up the Clawson location, even though it had been vacant for some time and required a complete renovation. She gutted the interior and replaced the wiring and plumbing.
Dao-Waldis was equally precise in choosing the authentic dishes on which she would serve. The bilingual menu, which she has expanded and refined over the restaurant’s inaugural year, is devoted to the food of Vietnam, with nothing Americanized to placate timid diners. That’s certainly a plus.
I’ve always wondered why anyone would go to an ethnic restaurant and order something other than the prime cuisine, but proprietors sometimes offer American dishes almost in self-defense. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.
Vietnamese food is one of the most appealing Asian cuisines: less fiery than Thai, lighter and more delicate than Chinese. At Da Nang, notably delicious appetizers include spring rolls with translucent rice-paper wrappers revealing large pink shrimp inside, along with tidbits of steamed pork, chives, and vermicelli. The spring-roll appetizers are served in multiples of two or four. Steamed chicken salad (a light and refreshing dish that combines shredded chicken and cabbage with fresh herbs), and the pot stickers filled with finely chopped chicken and served with a light soy dipping sauce, are also appealing, sharable starters.
Pho (pronounced fuh) — a soup that’s really a main dish — comes in several variations, including one with meatballs, another with top beef round, and another with beef tripe, and even a spinoff featuring shrimp. All are served with a plate of crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, a wedge of lime, and not just sprigs, but virtual bouquets of fragrant Thai basil. Diners are able to customize the dish to their own taste by adding whichever of the ingredients they choose.
Among the sauces that are delivered to the table with the generous white bowls of pho are the traditional nuoc mam (fish sauce), a staple of the cuisine, as well as the suddenly trendy sriracha hot sauce, hoisin sauce, and the house saté sauce, made with ground and smoked chiles, which is so popular that Dao-Waldis bottles it to go.
Among the especially interesting entrees are crêpes filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, and a resonant curry chicken stew (more of a soup than a stew) with small chunks of tender chicken in its herb-carrot dotted broth. It’s served with a baguette — a little reminder of the French influence on Vietnam, as is the strong Vietnamese iced coffee made with a French press and sweetened and enriched with condensed milk.
Other beverages (a liquor license is pending) include freshly squeezed limeade, as well as green, jasmine, or oolong tea that’s served in large, square white cups.
Both pair well with such special entrees as a deliciously spicy beef short-rib dish of grilled boneless short ribs stir-fried with portobello mushrooms, onions, and red and green peppers. There are versions of this item featuring grilled boneless pork or boneless chicken.
Also on the menu are several vegetarian selections spotlighting tofu, including a fried crispy garlic tofu and a stir-fried dish with fresh vegetables and rice. A vegetarian rice-noodle soup and vegetarian crêpes filled with tofu, bean sprouts, and scallions are other options.
Desserts include crème brûlée and coconut-cream pie topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with coconut flakes, and although that may sound American, Dao-Waldis assures that it’s Vietnamese in character.
Running the kitchen in tandem with Dao-Waldis is chef Melik Suparmin-Alonzo, whose cooking experience includes time at a 300-seat restaurant in Hong Kong. Alonzo has been with Dao-Waldis since a month after the restaurant’s opening, when she came by to offer her services.
With its carefully chosen table appointments, high-quality flatware, china, and linens — and most important — well-prepared and interesting fare from a dedicated proprietor, Da Nang adds a true destination restaurant to the center of Clawson.
1 S. Main St., Clawson; 248-577-5130. L & D Mon.-Sat.
Abraham contributes monthly food reports to Hour Detroit. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.