Long Provincial Vietnamese Elevates the Tamarind Tree’s Legacy

Unfortunately not far enough.

Four and a half years since Tam Nguyen and his family opened Tamarind Tree, Seattleites still like to describe the Little Saigon restaurant as a "hidden gem." Sure, the storefront is invisible from the street, but now you need to make an online reservation in order to circumvent one of the city's most notorious waits. The Nguyens' restaurant earned its following for introducing newcomers to traditional dishes like baby clams with rice crackers and turmeric coconut rice cakes alongside pomelo cocktails and ginger ice cream. And while Tamarind Tree keeps expanding and its service improving, Seattle foodistas have taken to complaining how much the food has gone downhill since the early days--a sure sign that the place has made it big. If you have limited coin but want to impress a date, never you fear. Tamarind Tree is still an ideal destination.Tam Nguyen, his brother Thiet, and sister Ngoan haven't stayed content with just one place. The family recently opened Long Provincial Restaurant and Jelly Bar, taking over the old Qube restaurant on Second and Stewart. Long (the "o" pronounced as "ao") brings everything the Nguyens have done at Tamarind Tree into the realm of fine dining: tonier decor and more sophisticated dishes with equally sophisticated prices. Even though they're upgrading the tableware and instituting formal bistro service, they haven't dispensed with the willy-nilly, everything-goes style of their previous menu. And that's where the problems lie.The Nguyens haven't gone all fusion, mind you. Even the new dishes follow through on their mission of presenting regional Vietnamese food. One night Nguyen stopped by our table just as we were finishing dishing out a purple potato soup from a small ceramic tureen covered in blue chinoiserie. My friend complimented him on the soup's piercingly floral notes. "What you're tasting are two herbs that people outside Vietnam rarely make this soup with," Nguyen told us. One he called lady's finger, another a kind of grass with no English name. "It's rare for people to find the herbs and hard to store them," he continued, beaming at us as if we were fourth-graders touring a lab who'd asked a scientist about a device he'd patented himself.We were on the second of four rounds of plates at that point, and it had taken the full two courses to parse what was going on around us. You could fault Qube's interior designers for many things—the unfortunate combination of lime green and peachy orange, all the warmth of a piece of scaffolding in January—but at least they didn't settle on the middling coziness that too many Seattle restaurants do. Long has completely recast the space, keeping only the high drama.The cement floors, the iron beams, the grates enclosing the mezzanine level, the exposed ceilings: all still there, painted black so they fade out behind the eggplant walls. The floor-to-ceiling windows are now completely veiled by bamboo screens, giving the room a perennially midnight air. Gas flames lick and spit out of a moon-colored bowl in the center, while around the periphery bright spots light up Asian baroqueries: a marble wall near the door writhing in relief dragonflies, a collection of high-modernist teapots at the center column. Wait, are those blue neon blobs swimming around the fish tank next to the bar actually jellyfish? Why yes, they are. High above the tables, seated on pillows and lit like gods in a household shrine, are bottles of cognac and Amaretto; open in case of apocalypse, I suppose.Regulars already have a standing joke: Long wasn't named after the Vietnamese word for "dragon," but to warn them about the menu. Printed on gold paper, it's just as epic as Tamarind Tree's—and as confusingly organized. How are the "rice dishes" different from the ones in the "meat" and "seafood" categories? Are the "specialty dishes" meant to be ordered as appetizers or entrées? Many TT favorites are on the list, with a buck or so added to the price, plus quite a few new ones. The waiters attempt to help on their first stop 'round the table. They rattle off a 30-second list of dishes that are unique to the new restaurant, laughing apologetically each time.The servers—all Caucasian, all dressed in black shirts and black pants—do bring to Long a Western fine-dining polish that fits the Nguyens' aspirations. They automatically divide your list of dishes into distinct courses, with 10–15 minute pauses between each, and stop by the table for drink refills and plate changes without you needing to wave wildly.I took two groups of four people to the restaurant. Each time we ordered a few appetizers, a salad, and three or four main dishes, with the per-person cost adding up to $35–$40. And both times I experienced the same progression:Good appetizers. The turmeric fish rolls, for example, thin strips of deep-fried catfish wrapped in successive layers of herbs, lettuce, a few strands of vermicelli, and finally a soft rice-paper shell; each piece contributed its own crunch, its own flash of aroma, all harmonized by the densely sweet dipping sauce. Or the squid satay caramelized on the grill so quickly that the tiny, satiny bodies barely had time to crumple and brown and no time at all to seize up. The Long provincial crepe (banh xeo) had a frilly, oil-free texture that I've rarely seen elsewhere, and when we wrapped bites of it in herbs and lettuce leaves and dipped them in nuoc cham, it didn't seem to matter that the bean sprouts and meats inside were unseasoned.Exquisite salads. Not only was the soft-crab banana-blossom salad presented in a giant purple petal, a tulip from the land of the giants that had floated to earth, it tasted as vivid as it looked: Arcing over the multivalent crunch of pickled carrots, jicama, and shredded banana blossoms were the electric-cilantro sparks of rau ram, the whole set aglow with a sweet-tart tamarind dressing. Crowning it all was one tiny fried soft-shell crab, crunchy, precise, and warm. A cognac pomelo scallop salad similarly played sautéed scallops off pickled vegetables, warm off cool, yielding off crisp, the contrasts animated by herbs and nutty toasted shallots.Simple, decent vegetables. Long, like Tamarind Tree, makes an appeal to Seattle's veg community; somewhere among the 100-plus dishes are a dozen veg options and a few dozen more with seafood only. The cooks did right by a plate of hollow-stemmed morning glory with garlic, one of my favorites, which takes to the smokiness of a hot wok like Radiohead to feelings of despair. Thick wedges of kohlrabi, with the crunch of broccoli stems, were stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, and fresh dill; they tasted as much Western as Vietnamese.Lame entrées. The more I paid for a dish, the less likely I was to enjoy it. A prawn curry contained a few fat prawns and potatoes swimming in two cups of a mild, cinnamon-inflected coconut curry that should have been served with straws, or at least a couple of extra pounds of rice. The waitress split the "pink snapper chile lemongrass" at the table and dramatically lifted out the bone, but what was left was overcooked fish covered in a coffee-colored crust of herbs. And the menu advertised that the "braised savory coconut in browned pork" was slow-cooked for 10 hours. But either the cooking time was nine hours off or the caramel the pork had been cooked in had so saturated the meat that when the sugar reached the soft-ball stage—which it did—all the fibers in the pork did too; the coconut just tasted hard and fibrous.The unevenness of both meals left me feeling that the reason Long hasn't perfected its concept isn't lack of skill in the kitchen but focus. I kept flipping back and forth through the menu like a writing teacher grading a talented student's story, wishing I could take out my red pen and edit it far, far down. What are you trying to say? I wanted to scrawl across the front. Is your restaurant high-end or midpriced? Is it a place for a $10 bowl of noodles or a $60 four-course meal? In raising their game, the Nguyens can't get away with the bigger, cheaper Tamarind Tree's strategy of offering every dish the owners hope their customers would like. Stretching all the way up while keeping both feet on the ground doesn't always get you where you want to go. You have to take a breath, crouch, and jump.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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