Cross-pollinating cultures in restaurants has been tried many different ways, but has never really worked well.
Tex–Mex? A chili-loaded train wreck looking for a bun. Asian fusion? Cute and popular, but it has never produced anything substantial. Italian–American? Italian-light, and mostly dull.
American-style tapas don’t work. And there are pan-tropical bistros, an attractive concept that takes in everything south of the equator, but succeeds more as a concept than in actual execution.
Mexican is far too complex, subtle, and culturally unique to be bastardized by Texan hands. As for Asian fusion: leave the Asians alone, and the food is much more interesting. And tapas should always follow the Spanish model.
There’s one cultural combination that does work, however, and seamlessly at that. It’s Vietnamese and French, which is interesting, considering the histories of the two countries, bound first by attraction and flirtation, only to be split by a deadly conflict.
For that cultural mix, we have one sublime example here in metro Detroit. It’s Annam Restaurant Vietnamien in Dearborn. Located in a simple storefront on Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn, not far from Greenfield, Annam has been a little jewel of delicate luxe and comfort since it opened in March of 2000. In most ways, it’s exotic and cosmopolitan — more what you’d expect in San Francisco, New York, or Chicago than in Dearborn.
Oh, there are several Vietnamese restaurants around, and many serve good food. But most are pure ethnic Vietnamese. And none has Annam’s refinement, grace, and charm in dining, delivered in the sensuous combinations of food and urbanity from two cultures.
The story of Annam’s owners, the Nguyen family, mirrors that cultural blending. The Nguyens were born during the crosswind years — the 1960s and ’70s — when the colonial era of Vietnam moved from French to American influence, and a Vietnamese national resistance movement led by the communists got under way.
Before that, French and Vietnamese cultures had melded happily and fruitfully in Saigon for decades, and became the stuff of romance and spy novels. But that ended in a bitter conflict with the humiliating defeat of the elite French paratroopers by the Viet Minh guerillas (later called the Viet Cong) at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Then came the American disaster.
In 1976, the extended Nguyen family moved to France, where Phuong went to patisserie school in Paris while one of her two brothers opened a restaurant in Belgium. The other brother, Andrew, decided to explore the Detroit area, along with Phuong. Today, he is her business partner.
Here, the Nguyens move in and out of English, French, and Vietnamese — equally fluent in each, clearly influenced by all three.
“I grew up in French culture,” says chef-owner Phuong Nguyen, “so that it follows me, it dominates so much of what I do, how I see my restaurant.”
There is a serenity about Annam that becomes evident as you leave the convenient municipal parking lot and enter the small 48-seat restaurant.
“To me, simplicity is important,” Phuong says. “I suppose it’s a Zen thing, but it’s also there in French culture. There is beauty in simplicity. So when you come into the restaurant, small details are important to me; you see flowers. Little details are what give the most pleasure. And that’s certainly European.”
Greeting customers on arrival is Tram Nguyen (no relation to the owners), who’s often dressed in traditional and stunning waist-hugging long embroidered-silk dresses. She shares host and serving duties with Ahmed Ghamlouch, Annam’s longtime and very knowledgeable Lebanese server.
Soft yellow walls decorated with a minimal number of photographs, soft light emanating from wall sconces, and a vase of fresh flowers highlighting the corner of the bar all have been carefully chosen to accent the sea of crisp, white linen-clothed tables and wicker-backed chairs.
On the food side of this tranquil setting, Phuong brings Vietnam’s exotic spices, grasses, herbs, broths, and flavors, which complement the gentle, subtle richness of the French. The French side, in turn, provides the aesthetic sense, the visual refinement, and the sense for beauty reflected in Annam’s menu and Phuong’s cooking.
“That’s true,” Phuong says. “I think the presentation of my food is French-influenced, but I also travel a lot in Asia and so I pick up little things, little touches here and there.”
The first courses are an adventure. All are traditional dishes, marked with the light deftness of Phuong’s hand, a reflection of her culinary training in France. The cha gio nuoc mam (crispy rolls with tamarind and fish dipping sauce) for example, have a light, airy pastry quality, as do the cha gio tom (a shrimp version of the same), while the goi cuon (fresh spring rolls with hoisin sauce) are wonderfully light in their translucent wrappers stuffed with shredded vegetables and shrimp.
For those who don’t know Vietnamese food, I suggest trying the sample platter for two, which offers each of the seven appetizers on the menu. It also includes spiced skewers of grilled satay-style chicken, crispy wontons stuffed with shrimp, and thin slices of marinated beef in a vine leaf. All are extraordinarily good.
The main dishes are basically Vietnamese, but many have French adjustments from Phuong’s background. Bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with marinated grilled pork in lemongrass) is rich and arresting in a deep broth with edgy flavors. Or try the ca chien don cay (crisped catfish in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce.) It comes in a clay pot with rice and is savory and deep flavored.
Among other dishes highly recommended is bo xao cai be nam hao (beef sautéed in oyster mushrooms and mustard greens) another wonderfully distinct, deep, and rich dish. Here is where the French melds so seamlessly into the Vietnamese — in addition to the short but intelligent French wine list.
“Sometimes I use ingredients such as red wine, which you don’t find in Vietnamese traditional cooking,” Phuong says. “I use red wine in my beef sauce. And I marinate my duck breast with red wine.” The effect is spectacular in both dishes.
A daily special of duck, a large pink breast perfectly cooked, slightly sweet and savory from hoisin sauce and red wine, comes away slightly spicy, but delicate.
If there is a word to sum up Annam, it’s “impeccable.” It’s a place that, through consistency and self-assurance, has survived eight years as one of the few like it around Detroit. It’s a gem, and so worth the visit.
22053 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-565-8744. L & D Mon.-Fri. D. only Sat.