At Magasin Cafe, the faint scent of anise wafts off steaming bowls of pho. Bun bowls arrive with colorful vegetables, meat and seafood variations over vermicelli. The extensive banh mi selection features traditional and creative takes on the Vietnamese po-boy. All these are present at Magasin Kitchen, Kim Nguyen's Central Business District offshoot of Magasin Cafe (4201 Magazine St.), but there also are dishes based on recipes passed down through generations of her family.
These include the rice porridge dish congee, an Asian breakfast staple and cold remedy from Nguyen's childhood. The porridge is served in a large aluminum vessel — which looks more like a bucket than a bowl — with spicy bits of salted pork, thinly shaved onions and cilantro. It's the gelatinous century egg that gives the otherwise tame dish its edge, although the fermented product might look off-putting with its translucent coffee-colored exterior and grayish-green center. The creamy yolk carries a funky, almost feral flavor that adds depth and umami layers to the dish.
The tables and long bar are set with the same chili sauces and pho accoutrement found at more traditional Vietnamese joints, but the restaurant space inside the Paramount building features a sleek and quasi-industrial decor and has a modern feel.
Appetizers include colorful spring rolls served with peanut dipping sauce, steamed pork buns and egg rolls. Crab rangoons are a tasty rendition in which fried cream cheese-filled triangles are served with sweet citrus marmalade dipping sauce.
Cooking vessels do double-time as serving dishes, as in fried rice selections, which arrive in miniature cast-iron skillets, rendering the bottom layer of rice crunchy and reminiscent of a Korean bibimbap or the socarrat in Spanish paella. Most of these fried rice dishes are topped with a fried egg, vegetables and a protein. In most cases they succeed, though in a few instances, the rice lacked flavor.
A garlicky shrimp-topped version featured bright green Chinese broccoli, steamed so the leaves impart soft, almost sweet flavor while the stems carry the snap of raw vegetables. A vegetarian alternative features rice beneath blistery green beans and fat wedges of avocado, and the yolk of a barely-set sunny side up egg provides the richness that ultimately ties the dish together.
Caramelized salmon embodies a popular method of Vietnamese cooking. Served in a wide clay pot, thick strips of salmon fillet arrive with a sweet, syrupy sheen atop steaming jasmine rice and a bouquet of lightly pickled cucumbers, carrots and cabbage. It would feel like spa cuisine were it not for deliciously fatty pieces of glazed fish and the thick sauce, which seeps into the rice, giving it the consistency of pudding and rendering it like candy.
While there are many similarities between the Central Business District spot and Nguyen's Uptown cafe, it's fun to see her explore new culinary territory at the new space, and I hope she continues to do so.