Pho Pasteur has grown from a modest Chinatown hole-in-the-wall with wonderful soup to a chain of five full-service Vietnamese restaurants with wonderful soup. Although prices rose as the restaurant made its way to the Atrium, one of Boston’s most upscale shopping malls, you can still sit down to an enormous bowl of beef-noodle soup or a satisfying rice plate for under $7! With four or more people, you can have a combination appetizer for $5 per person that will erase memories of any previously acclaimed pu-pu platter. You can also spend $40 a person for a three-course dinner with wine or drinks.
The room, formerly Jae’s, is the nicest place where I’ve eaten Vietnamese food in North America. The spacing of tables and booths is wonderful, and the stonework and quarry-tile files are lovely. Your eyes are drawn to salt-water aquariums, large bowls of flowers, and contemporary paintings of Vietnamese subjects. (The pop background-music tapes are a distraction, however.)
To get right down to forks and knives (chopsticks optional), the Khai Cam combination appetizer ($5 each for four or more) combines three to seven other appetizers on a large glass platter. One of the standouts is the shrimp toast ($4.95 by itself), which is actually made by stuffing Italian sesame-seed bread with shrimp paste and deep-frying the whole thing. A few slices of that can take the edge off any stressful shopping experience. Skewers of grilled beef or chicken ($4.50) are strongly spiced with lemongrass, backed with cinnamon and anise. You get both the exquisitely crunchy, tiny fried spring rolls ($4.25) and the glowing, soft " summer rolls " ($3.95). All this is arranged around a considerable heap of minty Vietnamese salad with chicken that’s topped off by prettily cut shrimp paste, apparently peeled off the usual shrimp-paste-on-sugar-cane appetizer ($8.95).
About the only other appetizer is Banh Xei ($8.95), a crêpe that looks like an omelet, here done quite crispy, with big chunks of shrimp and fried pork among the bean sprouts. Quality actually makes this harder to eat, because it falls apart, but the accompanying salad of field greens has some large leaves you can use to assemble packages of crêpe, filling, salad, and mint, which is the traditional way to eat a lot of Vietnamese food — all the textures and flavors in each bite. The traditional Vietnamese salads ($6.95) with chicken, shrimp, or both are somewhat disappointing. Not enough fish sauce, not enough hot sauce. Without the livening exotics, such salads are like coleslaw and plain bean sprouts.
Pho is the name of a soup, and that soup still drives this restaurant. The classic combination-beef soup ($5.25 small/$5.95 medium/$6.95 large) starts with a somewhat restrained broth. The beefy stock is just made complex with anise, the better to feature aromatic toppings that include cilantro and scallions. The smallest size is still about double the usual restaurant bowl of soup, and loaded with rice noodles and six parts of beef. The flank steak, rare round, and cooked brisket are familiar enough, and novices may easily overlook the fine white tripe that passes for a crunchier noodle. A slice of bible tripe and another of " tendon " (tenderized gristle, good for the nails) are harder to miss, but my advice is to gobble them up as textural contrasts rather than flavors. (If you don’t want to do that, simpler combinations are available, along with added meat balls and vegetables.)
All soups at Pho Pasteur are served with a plate of add-your-own Asian basil, bean sprouts, and slices of lime. The usual Chinatown super-hot chili pepper is omitted, but two fresh red-chili sauces will satisfy the spice fiend, and sweet hoisin sauce is another optional flavoring.
Chicken-noodle soup ($5.25/$5.95) is offered with " old or new style " broth. The old style is beef broth; the new style is a grandmother-type chicken broth. Many will prefer the new style to any of the beef soups, but you also have to try the vegetable-noodle soup ($5.25/$5.95), with chicken, beef, or an effective soy-based stock. Here the fillings are broccoli, turnip, fried tofu cubes, red bell pepper, and onions, instead of beef or chicken.
Of the main dishes, it’s hard to beat the pork-chop rice plate ($6.95), a large plate with jasmine rice and salad, and options of sliced pork, chicken stir-fried with a lot of lemongrass, or sliced beef instead of the chop. There was certainly nothing wrong with a daily special on seared scallops and shrimp ($17.95) in a French butter sauce with adequate garlic. The mashed potatoes in the middle weren’t flavorful, but it was a generous plate of seafood and broccoli. Sake-marinated sablefish ($19.95) is a fusion treatment for an oily Pacific fish we usually eat smoked, but too much of the sake stays with the fillet. Around the base of jasmine rice are some very nice vegetables: sautéed enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, carrot, fresh bamboo shoots, and cherry tomatoes.
Salmon gâteau ($17.95) is not a gâteau at all, but three slices of salmon steak on a better mound of mashed potatoes (garlic was an important difference), with horseradish mayonnaise and a lavish salad. Between the rice plates and the daily fusion entrées is a level of entrées like shrimp and broccoli ($10.95). This is a quick stir-fry that leaves the shrimp delectably underdone and the broccoli just right, with a scattering of red bell peppers, a wisp of vaguely Asian sauce, and plenty of rice.
The new Pho Pasteur offers mixed drinks, and a wine list of likely matches to Asian food, with eight wines by the glass. The Trimbach pinot gris ($8/glass) is a much drier version of the popular pinot grigio, and excellent here. Draft beers ($4) are even better matched, with Blue Moon ale’s spicy overtones ideal. Tea is served in Japanese iron pots.
The big departure for this Pho Pasteur is a list of fusion desserts, with menu credit to pastry chef Asako Ishii-Judson. The winner is a taro-tapioca custard baked in a shell of green coconut ($12 for two). It comes on a large platter garnished with fruit, a cheese tuile, and cups of chocolate and caramel sauce. But the custard itself is very much Southeast Asian, with dots of tapioca and tiny taro cubes. I also liked the strawberry-champagne sorbet ($5), three scoops that suited the context well. Banana spring rolls ($6) had too much of the crunchy-but-unsweetened wrappers in each bite, and not enough banana or chocolate.
Service on two visits was excellent. With the owner visibly present on weeknights, the minor weaknesses are sure to be repaired promptly, and the strengths of the Vietnamese core menu are considerable.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com