THE SIMPLE, COSMOPOLITAN Asian restaurant is strangely rare in this town. Simple we have in spades, and have had for years: neighborhoody mom-and-pops throughout the International District and up Aurora and down Rainier, offering varying degrees of authenticity. Cosmopolitan—by which I mean possessed of some decorative or culinary pretension lending a sense of worldliness—is a more recent phenomenon among Asian restaurants in Seattle. Think Wild Ginger, Blowfish, ObaChine. Monsoon
615 19th E, 325-2111
lunch: Tue-Fri 11:30-2,
dinner: Tue-Sun 5:30-10,
brunch: Sat-Sun 10-2
MC, V; beer and wine But where is the restaurant that combines the charms of both? These days, just about anyone on Capitol Hill could tell you: down the street at Monsoon. Tucked into a spare little space on 19th across from the Kingfish Cafe, Monsoon is all clean lines and cool contemporaneity. Photographs and minimalist Asian sculpture, in a room sketched in tones of beech wood and graphite, communicate sophistication. Yet nothing at Monsoon feels cold. There's the open kitchen, right back there, all gleaming and steaming; over there's a single orchid blooming lushly. . . . The place, in short, is elegant—something you might not have expected from a neighborhood Vietnamese place on Capitol Hill. In light of Seattle's dearth of such places, I certainly didn't. Nor did I expect food like we were about to get. On an appetizer plate came four little finger-sized bundles of marinated beef, wrapped in jicama and wild betel leaves, dusted with peanuts, and presented with pickled onions on a bed of greens. Called la lot beef ($5), this extraordinarily tasty dish thrummed with every one of its flavors, none dominantly. Then came a big bowl of tamarind soup ($9), to be shared among the table. Tiger prawns and chicken pieces joined sprouts, tomatoes, and pineapple bits, along with coriander and a whole legion of Vietnamese herbs, in a broth of surpassing wonderment. Flavors tart, bright, sweet, and spicy-hot opened by turns on my awestruck palate; sections of my tongue lain long dormant stood up and saluted. Coolest was the spongy slice of bac ha atop the bowl: a delicious Vietnamese white root vegetable tasting vaguely of bread. Dungeness crab and rock shrimp spring rolls ($7) were also grand, featuring a generous amount of the shellfish stuffed into crisp, delicate pastry casings. They came with a chile fish sauce and a sweet pineapple sauce for dipping. The vegetarian variant ($4) were every bit as fine. And then we ate dinner. A big fillet of green-tea-baked king salmon ($14) came tucked moistly inside the folds of a thick banana leaf, over rice noodles and alongside a heartbreakingly tender bulb of Shanghai bok choi. Cooked perfectly, the tea-infused salmon offered the kind of heady, perfumy flavor you taste in your nose; a wonderful deep foil for the mild meat. Asparagus and tiger prawn curry with yam ($14) sounded weird and tasted sensational, owing to a bang-up curry sauce. The prawns and asparagus were prepared to a turn, and the yam bits, diced and scattered like confetti across the plate, added considerably to the verve of the whole. Mesquite-grilled lemongrass pork tenderloin ($8.50) arrived both tender and charry over rice noodles, wearing an impossibly complex coat of flavors that made every bite a new delight. It arrived beside a fragrant mound of kimchi. Perhaps this wonderful meat had lingered a moment too long on the fire—a problem, though, that barely slowed the table's momentum through the dish. Best were a couple of fish dishes. Monsoon's menu lists a handful each of salads and appetizers, four meat dishes, four vegetarian dishes, and a half-dozen fish—the last of which are, judging from our experience in two visits, this kitchen's prime passion. A plate of steamed halibut heartily festooned with lily buds, green onions, shiitake mushrooms, and ruffly tree ear mushrooms ($15) blew us clean away with its lush textures and explosive flavors. Better still was a rich and decadently oily hunk of Chilean sea bass ($16), seared to a golden crust and topped with a bewitching, spicy, briny brew of chiles, coriander, shallots, and some of the finer mysteries of the universe. These two dishes were, without question, some of the best seafood I've tasted in this town. WHO ARE THESE people? Meet Sophie, Eric, and Yen Banh, siblings from Saigon, who used to run a restaurant with their family in Alberta, Canada. Sophie (formerly of ObaChine and Roy's) and Eric are the chefs. Such is the nature of their apparent gift that the "losers" on their list are delicious in a merely ordinary way. A sea scallop spinach salad ($8) was fine, with gorgeous tender scallops, but came with its dressing pooled on the bottom. Lemongrass crispy tofu ($8.50) was addictive, with onions and fresh shiitakes mixed in, but relatively lackluster. Same with the wok-fried lemongrass chicken ($9.50), a refreshing toss of onions and red peppers and chicken in a lightly spiced sauce. Mingled with the steamed jasmine rice ($1), none of these dishes blew our dresses up particularly, but make no mistake: They were only second-rate in juxtaposition with that extraordinary fish. As for sister Yen, she runs the front of the house with warmth and crack professionalism. I almost hate to say it in a review already loaded with superlatives, but the service we enjoyed at Monsoon was pretty nearly close to perfect: a swift and friendly greeting at the door; a straightforward, affable waiter who was knowledgeable about the menu and the wine list; a genuine concern and willingness to help when I phoned later—anonymously—to report an item that I had lost. Service stays good well into crowded weekend evenings, report my spies (this, of course, is the truest test). And crowded it can get, with folks in all various states of casual and dressy, establishment and counterculture, hip and square—the whole glorious urban spectrum. The Banhs offer weekend brunches—an Oriental/Occidental blend I will not wait long to try—and desserts, which . . . stop me if you've heard this before! . . . are also sensational. In particular, cr譥 caramel fans will want to sample Monsoon's ginger ($4) and coconut ($4) versions, which are, befitting their surroundings, sumptuous and fine.