From China, on its northern border, Vietnam adopted stir-frying and deep-frying. From India, it took curries, via Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Europeans introduced tomatoes and potatoes early on, and the French, who dominated Vietnam from 1859 to 1954, left behind a fondness for ice creams, for custards, and for the process of sauteing.
In short, Vietnamese cuisine can be complicated and interestingand yet, until recently, in spite of this country's extensive recent acquaintance with Vietnam, Baltimore has had no access to it. With the opening of CoChin, we have our first view.
At Charles and Madison streets, CoChin replaces the defunct, basement-level Mount Vernon Grill, whose exposed brick walls seem somehow to suit the new restaurant better than they did the old one. The lighting is attractive, and, with spotlights,
sometimes dramatic. Tables are bare and casual, and the wooden armchairs are comfortable. Noise is a bother -- I'd take out the piped music -- but the general feel of the restaurant is relaxed, pretty and welcoming.
Appetizers on CoChin's fold-out menu range from sugar canes stuffed with shrimp ($4.95) and cold rice noodles ($3.25) to shrimp tempura ($3.95) and deep-fried, prawn-flavored chips ($2.95). (Prawn-flavored chips? They sound like an American invention, but they're not. Made from fresh shrimp, tapioca starch and egg white, they're Vietnamese crackers, deep-fried just before serving.)
To start, we settled on a special, curried eggplant ($3.95), a CoChin special soup ($3.95) and two Saigon spring rolls ($3.95). The eggplant preparation consisted of several peeled, steamed eggplant slices, set over lettuce and covered with a spicy hot curry sauce. We liked the heat; we liked discovering the vegetable in a new incarnation. The unremarkable but pleasant soup consisted of sliced winter tomato, celery, mushrooms, shrimp, fish sauce, and an edge of sweetness from a fruit called "ladyfingers."
Spring rolls were much better than most, partly because a rice paper wrapper becomes thinner and crisper than the more common Chinese wheat-flour wrappers, partly because the chopped-vegetable-shrimp-and-pork contents tasted fresh, individual and light, and partly because we liked the ritual of eating them: The rolls are served over lettuce, which is used to wrap the wrapper. Forget chopsticks. Spring rolls are finger food, to be dipped in a small bowl of sauce made from chilies, lemon and orange juice, carrots, daikon and fish sauce.
Anyone experienced with Vietnamese food -- and many people locally most certainly are more experienced than I-- will wonder how much nuoc mam, or fish sauce, appears in CoChin's cooking. We found it a subtle rather than pronounced taste. Was there bottled fish sauce on the table? No. However, since, undiluted, it smells outrageous to an American nose, it's probably just as well that CoChin doesn't use enough of it to distress the noses or palates of the uninitiated.
We couldn't order everything that interested us. I would like to have tried pork cake and rice noodles ($7.95), or a Vietnamese crepe ($6.95) -- "shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and mushrooms wrapped in a delicate crepe and accompanied with our special house sauce" (which uses ground sweet rice, beans and lemon juice). Our choices were crystal fish fillet ($7.45), Cochin's special beef ($8.95) and curried chicken ($6.95).
Perhaps it was the idea of "crystal fish" in a "crystal sauce" that drew us to the first dish, which turned out to be very simple -- a couple of fillets of nameless white fish, bronzed, firm and chewy at the edges, and covered in a cornstarch-thickened, clear, sweet sauce, mildly flavored with orange and lemon juices and fish sauce. Like the other entrees, it was served with an orange slice and a scoop of plain rice.
Cochin's special beef consisted of thin-sliced beef in a hot, sweet brown sauce packed with hot, fresh, green and red chili peppers. The menu warned us it could be "too heavily seasoned for many Western palates." We ate until we coughed, and our eyeglasses steamed over.
Though the curried chicken was overcooked and rigid, and sauteing would have enhanced the flavors and textures of the too-plain yam and potato, the curry sauce had spark.
To end on something sweet, we tried an interesting sorbet, made of crushed, icy fresh grated ginger and pureed, canned litchis ($2.50), and a gentle and soothing yellow mung bean custard ($2.50), thinly whitened with coconut milk.
Though we'd enjoyed our very Americanized Vietnamese meal, we concluded CoChin's best feature was gracious, attentive service. *
% Next: Year-end review
CoChin, 800 N. Charles St., 332-0332
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sundays 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Accepts: Visa, Maste Card, American Express Diners Club
Features: Vietnamese cuisine