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Ngon Vietnamese Bistro's Seared Scallops

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro’s co-owners Jessica Ainsworth-Troung, left, and Hai Troung

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

NGON VIETNAMESE BISTRO ★★★

Location: 799 W. University Av., St. Paul, 651-222-3301, www.ngonbistro.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Atmosphere: A warm and welcoming French colonial storefront.

Service: Energetic, enthusiastic and not particularly polished.

Sound level: Only an issue when it's a full house, and even then it's not too harsh.

Recommended dishes: Pho, pork belly, scallops, spring rolls, sweet potato croquettes, duck salad, pork chop, short ribs, lamb shank, broken rice dishes.

Wine list: A small but shrewd assortment that highlights small producers and sells them at reasonable prices. The restaurant's local-is-better ethos is especially evident on its beer list, a showcase for six Gopher State breweries.

Price range: Entree prices average $16, most other prices less than $9.

Translation: Delicious

  • Article by: RICK NELSON
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2008 - 9:23 AM

Hai Truong and spouse Jessica Ainsworth-Truong couldn't have come up with a more appropriate name for their restaurant than Ngon Vietnamese Bistro. That's because ngon ("It's like saying long, with an N," said Hai) is Vietnamese for delicious.

And how. Here's just one example: If there's a Twin Cities restaurant serving a better pho (pronounced fuh), the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, then I haven't tasted it. "I'm not sure what others do, but I take a long time to make my stock," Truong told me, and his efforts show.

He slowly but surely extracts every molecule of flavor from beef bones and oxtails from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., the disciples of Minnesota grass-fed beef. It's a labor-intensive process, gently skimming off fat and insinuating fragrant spices -- the scents that teased my nostrils were anise and nutmeg -- before adding slurp-worthy fresh rice noodles, bright herb accents and a variety of proteins, from chicken and shrimp to lean cuts of that fantastic beef. There are six varieties, and each is a deeply satisfying meal in a bowl. Or, more accurately, a meal for two in a bowl; just about every customer I observed hunched over a wide bowl of pho later left the premises carrying a plastic container sloshed full of leftovers. Me included.

Unlike so many of the Asian restaurants that bring a jolt of much-needed life to an otherwise dreary stretch of University Avenue, the kitchen at Ngon has a locavore mentality, and it expresses its belief in the value of premium, locally raised ingredients at every opportunity. Truong buys whole pigs from Minnesota family farms, and that pork finds its way into a wide range of you've-gotta-try-these dishes: roasted, sliced and rolled inside abundantly stuffed spring rolls; shredded and glazed with a sweet-hot barbecue sauce and served with rice and bits of crispy pork skin; or cut into a thick, sizzling chop and topped with mushrooms and bok choy.

The melt-in-your-mouth pork belly is a marvel. At dinner it's served as an appetizer, a few smoky squares cooled by a cilantro sauce, and at lunch it's the foundation for a kind of Vietnamese BLT built on a crispy baguette (from the nearby Ala Francaise bakery) and finished with tomato, frisée and a brazen aioli.

Truong does similarly good things with duck, sourced from Pat Ebnet's Wild Acres farm in Pequot Lakes, Minn. It's braised and then elegantly paired with frisée splashed in a tangy ginger-soy vinaigrette, or it's rolled inside spring rolls jammed with plenty of fresh mint. Or it's done confit-style, with a memorable coconut-curry one-two punch, or as a hearty cassoulet, with the duck rubbed with that same magical anise-nutmeg medley used in the pho.

Untraditional fare

There are so many delicious ideas here. A perky tomato-basil confit lightened up juicy rabbit enrobed in a pastry shell. Pudgy scallops were seared to caramelized perfection. House-made boar sausage popped with zesty bite. I loved the shrimp mousse ball speared with sugar cane, as well as the delicate little sweet potato croquettes, each one flecked with bits of shrimp. A pair of slow-braised meats -- one beef short ribs, the other an on-the-bone lamb shank -- fell apart at the touch of a fork. Even better were two daily specials, chunks of tuna tartare marinated in tamarind and ginger, tossed with pickled carrots and cucumbers and scooped up with fried wonton shells, and do-it-yourself lettuce wraps filled with savory venison brushed with a pert lemongrass sauce.

Dishes as familiar as a grilled steak served with rice, or hoison-glazed chicken over cold vermicelli noodles and field greens, exuded an easygoing appeal. Desserts aren't the kitchen's strong suit, but one stood out, a powerhouse blend of coffee, vanilla custard and whipped cream.

Family heritage

The restaurant is a kind of homecoming for the couple. Hai's family has anchored the corner of University and Avon since 1983, when his father Tang opened Caravelle. While Hai was getting his first taste of the restaurant business, working as a bus boy, his entrepreneurial dad was opening four other Caravelles across the Twin Cities. Eventually that first Caravelle became Pho Anh, run by Hai's aunt. When she wanted to retire, Hai, who had been working in finance, left the cubicle life and returned to the family business. He and Jessica, an interior design instructor at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, gave the place a stylish renovation -- another University Avenue rarity -- and Ngon debuted on Feb. 11 last year.

That makes me late to the Ngon party. My mistake, and a big one. When I think of all the fine meals I could have been enjoying these past 14 months, well, frankly, I don't want to think about it. (Neither does my inner cheapskate; here's a chef who demonstrates that "local" and "expensive" are not synonymous.) Instead, I'll focus on the future. Truong's menu rolls with the seasons, "although it changes more frequently in the summer, because I get to shop at the farmers market," he told me.

That's another reason to become a regular at the restaurant otherwise known as Delicious: To see -- and taste -- what Truong does with all that fresh Minnesota-raised produce.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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