When I visited Ngon (pronounced like the word “long,” but with an n), I felt like I stepped into a culinary border town that was quietly waiting for me to arrive. It was eerie and calm, but steadfastly ready, as though I had just missed whatever major dust-up had just rolled through. Oh wait — was it the flurry of reviews I kept seeing online, praising the creative owners and calling the pho and many of the appetizers and entrees among the best in town, from bloggers, to Rick Nelson, to Dara, to Iggers? That’s quite some high-falutin’ talk for Vietnamese food on University Avenue.
Stepping into Ngon reminded me of happily stumbling into a classy restaurant in the not-so-classy corner of Brooklyn where C and I once lived roughly known as Bedford-Stuyvesant (or, more appropriately, Bed-Sty), where the diners would be eying each other suspiciously as though the white tablecloth could be yanked out from under the foot of the restaurant at any given moment, mercilessly tossing them back on crusty Myrtle or DeKalb Avenue. Yes, Ngon is a place C and I would have visited enough times to thoroughly experience their considerable menu. That is an understatement, I’m sure. Ngon screams “delicious, reliable, intimate neighborhood restaurant absolutely perfect for you and your food-loving boyfriend especially happy that a fabulous menu came to the cheap part of town. See you again soon!”
But that’s just me. On a more universal scale, I think that everything about Ngon contributes to a juicy feeling of possibility. It has a crisp French colonial decor on a street better known for its neon. The servers were friendly and always at the ready. The menu mixes pricier upscale fusion alongside less expensive classics (a brilliant, move, I think). The owner and another guy were hanging out together at the bar. Best of all, Ngon hopes to “break the chain,” sourcing as many local products as it can and hosting a localvore’s happy hour every day of the week with a cool beer and wine list.
I went with Angela and Lisa, two of my most culinary friends, and conquered the menu along with the help of our gracious server. We ordered a fine sample and shared a bit of everything. We thoroughly enjoyed what we ate, but there were some mixed opinions and a little ambivalence, so I can’t say that we were equally enthused. Also, the appetizers and entrees came altogether too quickly. At a slower pace, we would have been able to ease deeper into our own conversation and foster a sense of expectation for our meal.
Wild Acres Duck Spring Rolls. Braised duck with organic spring greens, sprouts, cilantro, mint, and vermicelli. This was OK, but seemed to be missing something. None of us were terribly enthusiastic about this appetizer.
Sweet Potato Shrimp Croquettes. Lightly breaded sweet potato and shrimp, fresh herbs, and a spicy aioli. This disappeared in an instant. The thick, crispy coating belied the whip-soft sweet potatoes inside, and it wasn’t especially shrimpy. A wonderful balance.
Poussin Kadegen. Free range poussin marinated in pho spices with sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and braised pork belly with a shiitake curry sauce. Lisa said it was tasty, but not extraordinary, and didn’t seem to deserve a 17-dollar price tag.
Pho Tai Ribeye. Rice noodles with a generous portion of tender ribeye cuts. I ordered this along with the Bun Bo knowing I would have two days of leftovers. Highly recommended. The pho was the star of the show, with a complex, spicy broth so tonguey that felt like it could lick you right back. And yes, tonguey is the perfect word for what I am trying to say. It leaves a lingering kiss of star anise on your cheek to tease you when you get back home.
Bun Bo. Rice vermicelli with lemongrass, onions, and ribeye. Vermicelli! I love this stuff. This meal was perfectly easy and comforting. Is this what Vietnamese parents feed their picky children?
Com Tam Tau Hu. Broken rice with ginger glazed tofu and fresh shitake mushrooms. This tofu was delish, given the glaze, and the frying. Angela, you didn’t say much about your meal overall. Were you ambivalent about it?
Some reviewers say that Ngon’s classic Vietnamese dishes rock the French colonial house, but their more imaginative (and pricier) entrees aren’t as memorable. This seemed to be true the night we went, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. With a restaurant that begs you to love it as much as this one does, you have to go at least twice to get a full opinion, whether you are in the neighborhood or coming from across town. Boyfriends, take your girlfriends, and your boyfriends too, and let me know if Ngon is a restaurant that lures you back again.