Hold the Line
Is this your first time here?" our server asked as he stood over our table -- the last one available early on a Saturday night in the small dining room at Parallel Seventeen.
And we nodded, meekly, acknowledging that yes, in fact, this was our first time. I hate doing that. Makes me feel like a rube who don't get out but to Burger King once ever' now-n-then.
Our server just smiled. "Cool," he said. "Well, let me explain." Then he did, showing us the menu, the drinks, the specials on offer. "It's small plates," he added. "Because everything in Denver now has to be small plates." He laughed, and so did we. "I'll give you a couple of minutes to look."
Then he vanished, which is not an easy thing to do in a place as small as Parallel Seventeen. The brick-faced dining room boasts seating for fifty, maybe. And that's if every single chair is taken, every banquette crammed to capacity, every bar stool occupied, the pillows and couches in the front-corner lounge area draped with girls in various stages of martini repose, and some customers standing, waiting, tracking the progress of servers bearing bills in little red envelopes with the concentration of Japanese gamblers watching pachinko balls. Still, he managed it, which was a neat trick -- as is the fact that Parallel Seventeen, even when crowded to capacity, can seem intimate, comfortable, neither overburdened with bodies nor overloaded with servers.
I don't know where the servers go when they're not on the floor (although I imagine a tiny closet in the back somewhere filled with young, tattooed and perfectly manicured beautiful people occasionally fired out into the dining room like bullets from a very well-aimed gun), but in just six months of business, they've gotten down the knack of working a small room. They're there and then they're gone -- never far away, but always far enough that no one seems to hover.
My seat was uncomfortable, an angular booth-back too high to throw an arm over, made of slatted planks like a picnic-table bench, painted black and kinked at strange angles to fit in a corner. Perhaps you need to be a more serene and better put-together man than I am to relax here -- a master of zazen, a gymnast or a loose-jointed drunk. My best chance being the third option, I decided to drink martinis, which proved to be a fortuitous arrangement of environment and circumstance (awkward seating, a proclivity for strong drink and the fact that I am not a thirteen-year-old Romanian girl) that led to an alcohol epiphany.
Laura ordered the house's pom fiz (Prosecco and pomegranate with a cored lychee bobbing around in the flute), which tasted like cheap, bubbly rosé. Our friend opted for something fruity that tasted like candy-coated vodka. But I, eschewing just this once my favored blend of gin, gin, gin and an olive, went with the Vietnamese-coffee martini, and as a result, will never again so quickly dismiss as knee-jerk heresy those terrible, juvenile and self-indulgent cocktails that today are poured as proxy to James Bond's favorite recreational indulgence. Of course, this was not a true martini, which can only be one thing. But still, it was amazing, addictive as crack cocaine, made of chilled Vietnamese coffee, vanilla Stoli, Kahlúa and a single dot of sweetened condensed milk lurking in the hollow where stem meets glass.
"How is it?" our server asked, appearing as if by magic by our table.
"You have no idea," I said.
"Yeah," he nodded, smiling. "They're dangerous, aren't they? Are you ready to order?"
Vermicelli and lemongrass, mousse pâté and pommes frites, Saigon-style baguettes, grilled quail served over mashed sweet potatoes, lettuce-wrapped spring rolls with pickled daikon and nuoc cham like a vinegar-chile kiss on the mouth. The surprising thing about the food at Parallel Seventeen is how traditional it is, how Frenchy-Asian, how rigorously grounded in generations of history. At a space like this, in a neighborhood like this, I expected fusion or worse -- sambal poppers, tri-color rice, everything deep-fried and sprouting tiny American flags. And as for the small plates, our waiter had already said it all: The restaurant does a small-plates menu because everything in Denver is about small plates now.
But small plates (and these small plates in particular) have a place in Vietnamese cuisine -- even if it isn't a place that most Denver diners are accustomed to. The tradition comes out of Hue, the old imperial capital, where armies of banquet cooks once prepared dinners for kings and queens. At any given time, there might have been fifty little dishes arrayed before royalty, all meant for tasting, for passing and sharing. This style was passed down to the citizens of Hue, who mimicked it for their family dinners -- preparing bits of meat and twists of salad, presenting skewers and rolls and scallops sitting regally on the half-shell. In turn, mothers passed the style to daughters and daughters to their own, but somewhere in the diaspora that came of decades of war and emigration, this method of serving was largely forgotten. Vietnamese restaurateurs, seeing the American appetite for big plates and big portions, went with a different model of presentation, offering mountains of food and rice that their customers could jealously hoard for themselves. Buckets of curry, hillocks of rice, entire chickens and pounds of beef: Americans like big cars, a big sky and a big dinner at the end of a long day.
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.
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.
By the time we finished dinner, crowds surrounded the perimeter of the small bar and pressed in on the overworked tenders like Khe Sanh in reverse. Waiting parties milled by the door, standing, holding champagne flutes, like fashion models unsure of who among them was the photographer. And yet there were no signs of stress, of desperation or disconnect. Our server stopped by our table again to chat, to make sure that everything had been to our satisfaction, and pointedly did not mention how much of the profiteroles we'd left behind. I could've stayed all night -- but when I looked at my watch, I realized we pretty much had.
Not bad, I thought as I paid the bill, stretched the martini-anesthetized kinks out of my back and silently counted heads. Not bad for a Saturday night on 17th Avenue. Not bad for a cuisine as old as kings and queens, a style born of Sunday dinners and diaspora and a cook who was really an investment banker.
I stepped outside into the icy cold where the overflow crowd stood shivering. I lit a cigarette, thinking that Nguyen's mom should be awfully proud.
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