Long Provincial, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant from the family behind Tamarind Tree, has a vast menu, moderate prices and helpful staff. Notable dishes include cinnamon pork rice balls, banana blossom salad with soft-shell crab, lily blossom halibut and chili lemon-grass tofu noodles.
Tam Nguyen and his family aren’t averse to taking chances. Almost five years ago, they opened their elegant Vietnamese restaurant Tamarind Tree in a nondescript Little Saigon strip mall. Now, despite a dismal economy, they have expanded their restaurant roster with the even more upscale Long Provincial, housed in the multilevel corner spot at Second and Stewart that was briefly Qube.
But their riskiest move may be completely covering the floor-to-ceiling windows at Long (pronounced Laong). While most Seattle restaurants strive for as much outdoor exposure as possible, Long’s bamboo screens filter light like a rain-forest canopy while eradicating an uninspiring street view of traffic lights, parking garages and scruffy passers-by. The resulting clandestine hideaway is a serene, fire-accented fantasyland graced with banana palms and jellyfish.
Those ethereal invertebrates float in a silver-blue aquarium that creates permanent twilight in the lower-level bar and lounge, while dividing it from the two-tiered dining room, which blushes magenta after dark.
Vibrant cocktails (a mango martini, a basil-flecked lemon drop) fit right into the dramatic setting. Nguyen, a pharmacist-turned-restaurateur, is the alchemist behind them. He also wrote the menu, drawing on his taste memory of growing up in Saigon. The kitchen is in the capable hands of his sister, Ngoan, and brother, Thiet.
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Servers aren’t family, but they are nevertheless well-versed in the vernacular of the cuisine, which is helpful because the menu — 12 pages at lunch, 16 at dinner — is a daunting document. Nguyen, often on hand himself, is eager to recommend his favorites, which are now also mine.
They include squid satay, dainty bodies lightly charred and very tender, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and paired with a bracing lime-pepper sauce. Also, salad rolls packed with turmeric-marinated catfish whose sharp bite reverberates clearly through the lettuce, jicama, noodles and profusion of herbs.
In Vietnamese cooking, fresh herbs play an integral role even when served on the side as they are with pho, here gently perfumed with cinnamon, ginger and star anise; or Banh Xeo, a rice-batter crepe that forms a crackling surround for squid, shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. At Long, the side platter of herbs includes purple-tinged Thai basil, mint, cilantro and tia to — garnet-and-emerald leaves with a spicy, minty kick similar to shiso.
A bevy of those chopped fresh herbs figured in two spectacular salads. Four huge cognac-glazed scallops paired with grapefruitlike pomelo could have been a head-on collision, but for the herbs, fried shallots and tangy, tamarind-spiked fish sauce that cushioned the impact of acid against sweet.
Tamarind sauce brightened a salad of shredded banana blossom, carrot, jicama and fried onion, a colorful confetti cradled in a banana-leaf canoe and crowned with a delicately fried soft-shell crab.
A server steered us toward chili lemon-grass tofu noodles, a marvelous cold noodle salad heaped with burnished triangles of lemony, chili-dusted tofu. Nguyen suggested the braised savory coconut in browned pork. A boyhood favorite of his, it tastes like barbecued pork Southeast Asian-style. Tender meat and young coconut caramelize in a sugar-sweetened fish sauce stoked with lots of black pepper. The luxurious result, mounded in a cabbage leaf, plays like a jazz riff in the mouth: at once bitter, sweet and searing.
On our own we discovered cinnamon pork rice balls and lily blossom halibut, two dishes that top my gotta-go-back-for list. Cinnamon explodes in every crunchy bite of the rice balls, which are really meatballs rolled in young green rice. Deep-frying puffs the rice and crisps the meat.
The halibut, served over clear noodles in a deep-blue-and-white bowl, is pan-seared then steamed with three kinds of mushrooms, dried lily blossoms and black beans. The fish is as lush as black cod, the peppery sauce deeply nuanced. At $19, it is the most expensive item on this moderately priced menu. So for the consumer at least, Long is far from a risky bet.
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