Vietnamese cuisine had a long, noble history before the French arrived in the 1940s and launched their ill-fated adventures through Indochina. But the French army didn't just come with rifles, trucks and funny hats; they were also considerate enough to bring along their cuisine. Though historians would no doubt disagree with me, I've long had the sneaking suspicion that all of France's wars were really just a means of spreading the French culinary canon to the far corners of the globe. Think about it: As far as geopolitical dust-ups go, the French do not have a great record. But every time they put down the machine guns long enough to pick up a sauté pan, they've been victorious.
When Parallel 17 opened a few years ago, I loved its banh mi — a perfect example of French-Vietnamese fusion. But what was once a very cool, deconstructed spread of baguette, vegetables and a variety of pâtés and pork products, is now merely a sandwich when you order it at lunch — arriving ready-assembled, neither better nor worse than the base sum of its parts — and while ordering the banh mi at dinner gets you a charcuterie platter that looks similar to the one I enjoyed before, it's somehow different, too. Otherwise, Parallel 17 is much as it was when I first reviewed the place: a beautiful restaurant on a choice corner that serves a very smart and oddly modern/authentic take on the cuisine of French Vietnam. The pho, available in several varieties (for $2, you can add chopped oxtail to any of them), remains that dark, rich, Northern-style broth, redolent of spice, served in bowls the size of hand sinks; the rice-flour baguettes are as good as they ever were; and the appetizers are still defined by their modernized sauces (creamy nuoc mam; chunky, slightly sour satay, savory onion marmalade handmade by one of the owner's mothers) and lovely, sushi-style plating.
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On a recent visit, I drank the house-specialty Vietnamese-coffee martini, chased it with cold Tiger beers and ate hunched over a table, dipping torn hunks of that delicious baguette into a deeply flavorful bowl of Hanoi curry and hunting among the anachronistic haricots verts for more nuggets of perfectly seared pork. When I'd come for one of my review meals, I'd wanted the fried bananas, then felt gypped after I was voted down by the table. Now, finally, I got an order — and sadly, I discovered that they were awful. Other than the bad bananas and the reworked banh mi, though, everything about Parallel 17 was as wonderful as I'd remembered, and the place itself seemed to have been frozen in time since the minute I'd last walked out the door.