During the siege of the French at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, one of the last cargo drops recorded before the base was overrun included, in addition to the usual ammunition and medical supplies, hundreds of gallons of French wine (and military wine concentrate -- yuck), trained prostitutes with a madam to oversee them, and a chef to cook for the troops who'd lost theirs in the fighting. Since this was an air drop, the chef and working girls were reportedly belted down to a parachute delivery palette and pushed from the back of a plane. On the one hand, it's funny to imagine an airborne hooker delivery service and an army requiring good wine and a professional chef in order to fight effectively. On the other, it's not so funny, because not many people survived the final assault at Dien Bien Phu.
But on the third hand, this tale is a good illustration of the importance of cuisine, and proof that, as MFK Fisher says, when you talk about food, what you're really talking about is love and sex and death and politics and the entire history of the human experience. Food is just the medium. The subject is life and everything in it.
With that in mind, I recently revisited T-Wa Inn, Denver's first Vietnamese restaurant and a place I'd reviewed soon after I moved to town, which was shortly after it had reverted back to one of its original owners, Tuan Lam. I wrote then: "If eating is an adventure -- and to me, it always is -- then that first dish (a sliced, fried pork egg roll noodle bowl) was like standing at the arrivals gate of an unfamiliar airport at the beginning of a long journey. I was a little lost, a little confused, but mostly I felt like the food hadn't taken me anywhere...."
I ate a half-dozen meals there before I got a handle on what the kitchen was trying to do. Lam and his cooks were working toward a Vietnamese cuisine that was truly international, not just traditional, not the historic Franco-Viet fusion. They were trying to pare down a menu that had grown to over 300 items (rivaling the massive heft of Chez Thuy's menu) while Lam was away, and instead concentrate on just a few (dozen) classic dishes with which T-Wa could, presumably, make a new name for itself. In my review, I concluded: "If my initial meal at T-Wa had all the charm of a disappointing arrival in some exotic place, then this -- a catfish in ginger sauce -- was like stepping out into foreign streets for the first time and getting mugged, beaten and rolled for my wallet. Nothing in the bland, workhorse preparation of the noodle bowl had prepared me for the assault and battery I experienced at the hands of that catfish. Expecting the same faintheartedness of flavor and forgoing the civilized decency of chopsticks, I dug right in with my fork, took a big bite and was treated to a sensation I can only describe as being hit in the mouth with a delicate, creamy-pink slice of pickled ginger wrapped around a tire iron. I now knew what I'd traveled all this way to find out. This food wasn't North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese, or even necessarily Vietnamese at all. It was food from everywhere, food from anywhere. Just good food, made by a kitchen that has learned the hard way over the past couple of years how important that one distinction really is."
Even if T-Wa wasn't perfect in the summer of 2002, it had potential. Unfortunately, it still isn't living up to that potential. Last week I stopped by for what was going to be a quick bite of a couple benchmark dishes (spring rolls, the bun cha gio noodle bowl, maybe some Vietnamese coffee), but wound up sticking around for a full dinner and then going back for lunch again because I couldn't believe the cuisine was just as confusing -- just as disappointing -- as it had been two years before. The menu is still incoherent, with no distinct declaration of that "international" flavor Lam claimed he was aiming for.
The shrimp spring rolls were actually worse than they'd been the first time around -- fat things packed with shredded iceberg lettuce rather than romaine hearts or butter lettuce, old mint leaves turning brown around the edges and a half-dozen flavorless small shrimp instead of the two big, tasty ones the kitchen once served. The Sriracha-laced peanut sauce was old and tired, with all the punch of a can of flat soda; the Vietnamese coffee was watery, and chintzy on the condensed milk. And that noodle bowl? As dull as ever. The kitchen might as well have been saving it for me in the cooler for the past two years. And while the vit roti (a duck -- a whole duck -- marinated in Vietnamese seasoning, then pulled apart at the bone, shredded and sauced with something dark and brown and delicious, if a little greasy) was excellent, overall these meals at T-Wa were the same old story: one or two dishes showing a talent and depth of understanding in the kitchen, but none of the others showing the same.