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But no culinary tradition is ever truly lost, and with Parallel Seventeen, Mary Nguyen (a former commodities trader-turned-caterer-turned-chef who was raised in Denver but whose roots are in Vietnam) and partner Becky Miller (half Vietnamese, and the designer responsible for turning the old Bricks bar into this casually hip, beautiful and strangely intimate space) went against the current of Vietnamese-restaurant business sense and settled on small plates. For most owners, this would be a concession to economics -- a stupid-if-you-don't kind of decision where your kitchen can offer half the food for a third of the cost and make up the difference in volume. For Nguyen, it was a turning back to something finer and more classical, a celebration of her roots and the foods that parenthesized her childhood. Her menu at Parallel Seventeen (which she cooks most nights, or four out of every six, anyhow) is shaped by the Sunday dinners that her mother still makes, flavors defined by her mother's memories of growing up in Hue, ingredients dictated by shopping trips to New Saigon market and the labels on cans and bottles that fill her mother's kitchen: Three Crabs nuoc mam, Sriracha chile sauce.
Nguyen learned cooking as a caterer, at the now-defunct Beehive and as a sushi chef (and, later, executive chef) at Hapa Sushi. But she learned how to cook at home. The pho on Parallel Seventeen's lunch menu is heavier and darker than most pho served along Federal Boulevard because her version comes from the colder, more Chinese-influenced north of Vietnam as opposed to the temperate south, the source of most traditional pho in this country. She uses charred ginger and onions, oxtail and beef bones to make her broth and leaves it to steep for four or five hours, then throws in shaved red onions, which lend a different note of sweetness. And she serves the pho with lime, holy basil, bean sprouts and a tiny square dish holding a teaspoon of hoisin sauce, a teaspoon of Sriracha and a teaspoon of wonderful, bittersweet, acid-sweet and just plain sweet-sweet onion jam that her mother prepares fresh for the restaurant each week.
1600 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
Vietnamese-coffee martini: $9
Chimay red label: $12
Spring rolls: $6
Pommes frites: $5
Riblets: $8< br>Scallops: $13
Whitefish napoleon: $10
Cinnamon wonton: $6
Our server returned carrying pommes frites -- purple, Yukon Gold and sweet potatoes, hand-cut and twice-fried -- in a wrought-iron cone lined with butcher paper, along with a side of creamy nuoc cham that didn't work so well because the heat was cranked too high to compensate for the aioli's texture. The fries were good, though, as were the pork spring rolls with their real nuoc cham and fresh lettuce. But the charcuterie platter was the true winner, a square white plate bearing an artistic, disassembled Vietnamese banh mi: silky homemade mousse pâté over stiff country pork pâté over paper-thin slices of pork char siu over a slaw of carrots, daikon and cilantro, punctuated by single slices of thin jalapeño topping even thinner slices of cucumber. This pork pyramid came with slices of bias-cut toasted baguette so that the civilized could assemble their own sandwiches. I mostly ate with my fingers.
Our second flight started arriving just as our first was cleared. We had more drinks, more coffee martinis and a bottle of Chimay (accompanied by a casual lecture on yeasts and fermentation by our server, who stopped short when he reached the limit of his knowledge -- a show of impressive restraint for any waiter), then slurped up scallops lying in puddles of coconut beurre blanc, beautifully mounted in their own shells. The scallops were decent but not fantastic -- a minor failure more of product than process, because these were perfectly seared, and only a better-quality scallop would have produced a better-quality dish. Unfortunately, I could taste how these specimens had lingered in their packaging. But I forgot all about that with the arrival of the whitefish napoleons, wrapped in rice paper, breaded in panko, then flash-fried and served with an excellent mango chutney that actually tasted like chutney -- not mojo, not pickle, not salsa, but chutney.
And the dishes continued. The riblets (yeah, riblets) had been braised in a caramel sauce, then sprinkled with white sesame seeds and served on the bone. The saltiness of a puddle of soy sauce overwhelmed some of the more delicate caramelization, and the cut (flat across the rib, leaving meat encircling a nugget of bone) was deceptive -- but I liked these riblets just for those reasons. The traditional way is not always the most appetizing way to present something. These would have been great fatty short ribs, but Vietnamese cooking has no short ribs. Instead, it has these -- riblets -- which had me alternately gnawing meat off a disc of bone and popping the soft-boiled quail eggs that came on the side into my mouth with my fingers.
We ate mild chicken curry over rice (the only large plate on the menu), crisp potato gaufrettes speckled with coarse salt, green beans sautéed with garlic in a black-bean sauce. We skipped the lemongrass steamed mussels (I don't like bamboo shoots) but enjoyed soft rice scented with coconut that was fluffy, sweet and perfect. For dessert, we devoured an order of cinnamon wontons layered with vanilla ice cream, roasted pears and a drizzle of anise honey. But we just pushed around the profiteroles, which were pretty as tiny pieces of ice-cream jewelry but tasted like nothing at all. I'd wanted the fried bananas in five-spice caramel sauce but had been voted down. That's the last time I'll let that happen.
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