A nice thing about ethnic eateries is their ability to transport patrons through their food to distant lands. That's certainly the case with Cuisine de Saigon in Naperville.
Walk through the door of this comfortable restaurant tucked in Naperville Plaza Shopping Center and prepare to experience the tastes of authentic French-influenced Vietnamese fare.
Cuisine de Saigon192 W. Gartner Road, Naperville, (620) 780-3030, facebook.com/CuisineDeSaigon
Cuisine: Vietnamese with French touches
Setting: Casual storefront in Naperville Plaza Shopping Center
Entrees: $10 to $15
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
The storefront establishment, though not the first in town to offer a Southeast Asian menu, has built a steady following since its debut in June 2012.
Personable chef-owner Chan Le runs the place. Le is a Vietnam native who emigrated to the United States at 15 with his mother; he was educated at Arizona State University.
During a recent visit, I found his food easy to like, the service congenial and the prices notably modest (no entree exceeds $15).
When ordering a sticky dumpling appetizer known as Banh Loc Hue, I was unsure what to expect, but the surprise was a pleasant one. The small nibbles, similar in size to gnocchi, were steamed and stuffed with bits of shrimp and pork. The dumplings, chewy bite-size affairs, came with a mildly sweet fish sauce.
Among other inviting starters were crispy roasted quail, a house special served over fresh greens; crispy egg rolls -- one of the few items the kitchen fries -- filled with cabbage, carrot and glass rice noodles; and a French tart with tomato, onion, shiitake mushrooms, organic lettuce and other vegetables.
Cuisine de Saigon's wide selection of entrees is impressive. Diners can pick from various rice combinations with grilled meat, chicken, salmon or tofu; various fish (including basso filets, a species of catfish native to the Mekong Delta) braised in a clay pot with caramelized brown sugar, coconut juice, garlic and fish sauce; and several beef preparations.
From the noodle side of the menu, I can recommend Banh Hoi Thit Nuong, which translates as Extra Thin Rice Noodle. It involves minimal do-it-yourself steps, but the effort is worth it. Briefly submerse a round sheet of cellophane rice paper in a bowl of warm water, transfer the softened disk to your plate and fill it with small amounts of sesame beef, cucumber, grated carrot, steamed thin rice noodles and fresh basil. Wrap the whole works, sprinkle with sweet-and-sour fish sauce and eat. And repeat.
A dining partner found favor with the vermicelli rice noodle bowl. The noodles were paired with a flavorful mix of sesame lemon grass pork, bean sprouts, cucumber, pickled carrots, peanuts, lettuce, and sweet-and-sour fish sauce.
Looking for pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup? Look no further. It and other soups including chicken noodle, curry and tamarind are fixtures on the menu.
Creme brulee, chocolate mousse and a white bean dessert are among the made-in-house confections on offer. But the custardy richness of its silky flan is hard to top.
The bar stocks domestic and imported beer, including Saigon, Vietnam's most popular brand, brewed and bottled in Ho Chi Minh City. A limited variety of American and European wines are sold by the glass or bottle.
Cuisine de Saigon accepts reservations; its understated dining room seats about 60, though it could easily handle more. Ceramic artwork adorning a side wall focuses on Vietnamese culture and is worth checking out.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.