We recently returned from an amazing trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. We fell in love with the hustle and bustle of Vietnam's cities...
and were awed by Vietnam's natural beauty...
But we also developed a serious love affair with Vietnamese food. On our trip, I went steady with Mr. Noodle (no, not my favorite college restaurant in Westwood) and ate noodles every meal of the trip. Whether doused in soup or stir fried with vegetables, I couldn't get enough. B urged me to step outside my starchy comfort zone and together we sampled fried silkworm pupae, pig knuckle, mud snails, eel liver, and durian. When we returned to the U.S., we were eager to retain our connection to Vietnam and found that there's no easier way to do that than through food.
A colleague of mine has traveled around the world multiple times (when I grow up I want to be him) and has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam. He suggested that we meet at the grand dame of Vietnamese food in the area, Four Sisters, to share a meal and reflect on our trip.
Though I hear it can get quite crowded, we were seated immediately on a Tuesday evening. While we settled in, we ordered the shrimp toast appetizer. Vietnamese food can be intimidating to newbies because it is often served with a big pile of greens on the plate. I used to think that the Vietnamese are just super enthusiastic about garnishes, but soon learned that you're supposed to wrap up your food into a little bundle using the lettuce and other herbs. Our waiters (more on that later) were helpful in pointing out how to eat each dish. Once the shrimp toast was wrapped up in its lettuce snuggie, we dove in and found them to be crunchy, salty treats.
Because you can't walk 10 feet in Vietnam without encountering a spring roll (or a motor bike), we had to sample Four Sisters' version. I'm happy to report that they can go toe to toe with the best spring rolls we had in Vietnam... and we had a LOT of spring rolls.
Before we get to the next course, a note about the service. Somehow we ended up with two waiters. Normally this would seem to be a dream scenario, but our waiters never communicated with each other so we wound up asking and answering the same questions twice, usually with different results.
When Waiter A came to take our order, I asked him to recommend a noodle dish. He shook his head and told me not to order the noodles. While I absolutely appreciate a waiter who will steer you away from the less stellar dishes, Four Sisters has a whole page of its menu devoted to noodle dishes and I wanted to try one of them. It was a battle of epic proportions to get him to recommend a noodle dish, but I'm glad I fought the fight. The Hanoi style pork with rice vermicelli was one of my favorite dishes of the night.
Though pho - the ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soup - is served for breakfast in Vietnam, we wanted to share a bowl for dinner. While not mind blowing, it was a richly seasoned and authentic bowl of warmth that helped combat the winter chill.
The grilled black pepper beef served over a bed of watercress and tomatoes was amped up with the help of salt and black pepper in lime juice. Definitely a solid dish, but not one I'd go running back out to far-off Merrifield for.
The dish worth running, nay, sprinting back for was the crispy sea bass filet sauteed in black bean sauce. We were so fortunate to be dining with someone who had navigated the Four Sisters menu three times previously because he steered us in the direction of this heavenly fish dish. It would have been easy to overlook if we were left to our own devices because of the boring description. It should be called crispy sea bass filet lovingly swaddled in the tangiest, tastiest sauce in the land.
Though we were bordering on comatose after stuffing ourselves silly, I couldn't turn down the opportunity to try a banana dessert. B doesn't like bananas, so I never order them when we're dining by ourselves. However, since we were joined by a fellow banana lover, B encouraged us to go for it. He happily sampled the coconut ice cream and strawberries while we attacked the fried banana drizzled with honey.
Returning from an epic vacation is always depressing. As you trudge back to work, you look at your watch and think about what you'd be doing if you were back in Vietnam. Luckily, Four Sisters is waiting for us in Merrifield to give us a taste of vacation any time we need it.
Second Thoughts from B
This last year J and I have been very fortunate to travel to some very far-off exotic places, and it is not by mistake. We've made it a priority to find the time (and money) to explore the world while we still have the flexibility to do so.
When we returned from SE Asia, the biggest question was, "Why did you choose to go there?" Probably the best (and easiest) answer would be; because we had never been there before. Of course there are many other reasons, but we believe that traveling is a lot about experiencing things that you've never been exposed to whether that's culture, philosophy, lifestyle, environment, and yes, surprise, surprise, food.
Fortunately for those of us living in DC, you don't have to travel to the other end of the Earth to experience an authentic Vietnamese culinary adventure. While there is nothing like squatting on a tiny plastic stool with a plate full of insects while surrounded by the indescribable noises and smells of Hanoi, a more formal meal can also transport you to a far away land. And without the need for industrial strength Pepto! (For the record, we've survived 3 continents-worth of travel without any problems)
From the service, to the art on the wall, to the flavors and aromas, Four Sisters could have easily been a part of our itinerary. If not for a more mixed clientele and a bill greater than 100,000 dong ($5), we might just have thought we were back in Saigon.