935 Marietta St., Atlanta
Last week, Guy Wong, the owner of Le Fat — a new westside Vietnamese restaurant — wrote me a friendly but concerned letter after I sent a photographer to shoot some dishes.
The news that I was planning to review the restaurant, he wrote, took him by surprise. “We have only been open for a couple of weeks. I thought normally restaurants are given more time to adjust before the full review happens.”
Wong was particularly concerned because the previous restaurant he had operated in that space, a fast-casual Asian spot called Yum Bunz, had pretty much flamed out. Now, he was trying out something completely different — upscale Vietnamese with a craft bar program.
A couple of weeks? I looked at my notes and realized that, by the time of my third and final visit, Le Fat had been open for a mere 23 days rather than the six weeks I had assumed. (Normally, I wait a month to let restaurants work out opening kinks.) I’ve had a lot on my plate lately, all of it sloshing around in attention-deficit gravy.
In the 25 years I’ve been a restaurant critic, this is the first time this has happened.
So, I’m sorry to let everyone down, but there will be no review this week. Since my credibility is completely blown, what I’d like to do instead is give Wong some advice. I know: completely unprofessional for someone who gets paid to be a neutral observer. But, I like the dude. I like his restaurant, and I want it to find its best self as quickly as possible.
So, here’s the letter I’m going to send him:
I’m sorry I jumped the gun on Le Fat. You’re right: It’s too early for a review.
But you should know you’ve got a potential winner on your hands. I mean, seriously: a Vietnamese noodle bowl and a craft cocktail? Yes! That has suddenly become my new crave meal.
I can taste that the herbs, pickled vegetables and slippery rice noodles you use are fresh, and the meat garnishes — pork, chicken, shrimp, beef — are of high quality. Best of all is your nuoc cham sauce, so bright and sharp with fresh lime. That sauce also makes your crunchy green papaya salad finer than any I’ve had in this city.
Then, those cocktails. Man. Your drinks guru, T. Fable Jeon, really knows how to make a subtle play on Asian flavors without being too on-the-nose. (So many drinks these days are heavy-handed with ginger and yuzu.) I really love the Sale Collins, his take on a Vietnamese salted lemon soda, made with rhum agricole, Suze, gentian and enough vodka to make for some happy. The Silverwhite is wonderfully bizarre, with caraway liqueur, lemon and a froth of egg white. Love it. Even the wine list is cooler than I’d hope for, with several nice Old World whites to go with the food.
What else? The design is great. Love the cherry blossom wallpaper, love the hexagonal floor tiles. Love the way the rooms blend cocktail bar funk with a suggestion of colonial grandeur, and yet give off a total westside vibe.
I also love the eclectic music choices, but you might want to rethink “Je t’aime, Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. It’s kind of hard to listen to paroxysms of carnal pleasure as you’re dribbling nuoc cham on your shirt.
What I love best is that you’ve channeled your Vietnamese heritage to keep it real in the kitchen. Most of the dishes I can recognize from my Buford Highway faves, but I also can taste the quality ingredients. You elevate the Vietnamese restaurant experience in some ways. Example: that juicy little pork chop with its tangy, sticky marinade you put on your traditional rice plate.
Yes, it’s a bit more expensive, but I’m heartened that you keep all the entrees under $20. And to the people who say they can get a bowl of pho for $6, just ignore them. People used to make that complaint about Watershed’s fried chicken and every other example of familiar food with care and quality ingredients.
But (and this is a big ol’ but), it has to be convincing. Folks who come here will know the pho at Nam Phuong, Chateau de Saigon, Pho Dai Loi and other great local places. The broth has to be steaming hot. There has to be a bit of pink round steak peeking out from the slivers of brown flank and brisket. The herb garnish plate has to be so heaped that you can smell the prickly aromas of basil, culantro and sliced jalapeno.
I’m guessing you’re still working on the cha gio — those egg rolls that can be so brain-crackingly crunchy and bursting with flavor, or so much another mystery fried item. Yours fall somewhere in between. Nail that recipe: Make it a signature.
What else? Some dishes are coming out better than others, but you know that. I’m not feeling the whole fried fish, a bit pale and chewy. (You also might tell the servers to explain the sauce that comes alongside. Do you pour it on the fish or use it as a dip?) But the shaking beef, cubes of seasoned flash-sauteed tenderloin on a bed of lettuce, is killer.
The half lemongrass barbecue chicken? It’s chicken.
The “drunken” pan noodles, so named for the sweet wine used in their dark soy glaze, are hearty and tasty. But you need another delicate noodle dish, such as the signature glass noodles with crab at the Slanted Door in San Francisco, the nation’s most successful high-end Vietnamese restaurant. Heck, just copy their recipe. Maybe one day they’ll come here and copy your recipe for the soft-shell crab BLT bun, which is amazing.
There you have it. Fix the duds or work them off the menu. Train the service staff to better explain the food. Develop a couple more signature dishes that people will freak out over. Hold firm when people complain about the price and try and compare your restaurant with one in a strip mall in Suwanee.
Then ask them if they’d like another cocktail. Best of luck to you.