As Vietnamese flavors proliferate around New Orleans, Magasin Café makes some smart changes to the script.
You overhear the darnedest things coming from other tables during a meal at Magasin Café, a new Vietnamese restaurant on Magazine Street. But you shouldn’t feel guilty about eavesdropping. This restaurant has proved so popular, and it routinely grows so crowded, that listening in to your neighbors is unavoidable anyway.
At one table, a lady wants to know if she can get her spring rolls steamed (the answer is no), at another someone’s asking if the Vietnamese crepes are sweet or savory (they’re definitely savory), and in between a guy is asking for a side bowl of white rice, in the manner of a Chinese restaurant meal (this was an unorthodox request that was cheerfully met anyway). These aren’t the typical questions you hear at Vietnamese restaurants, but then Magasin and its clientele aren’t typical for Vietnamese restaurants, either.
A number of nearby eateries have been serving many of the same dishes for years, and Magasin itself opened amid a flurry of new Vietnamese noodle shops in the Uptown area earlier this year. But Magasin has stood out from the very start, luring in capacity-testing crowds, including many who are new to the joys of this famously light, fresh cuisine, with its profuse herbs, pungent sauces and grilled meats.
It’s in a building that was previously a rundown grocery called Monica’s. Today, Magasin’s white, sleek surfaces and broad windows give it a look as contemporary and compelling as a new Apple computer product. A design-savvy hand set this stage, but there’s even a do-it-yourself appeal to the ad hoc patio in back — an area of lattice, broken masonry and a portable grill that just doesn’t fit in the kitchen. If this patio were on the beach, it could be the setting for a beer commercial.
Pho, the traditional beef and rice noodle soup, is usually the heart and soul of a Vietnamese café. Magasin’s is a fair introduction, though it lacks that robust, cooked-all-day intensity and smooth, beefy viscosity that I crave.
Instead, the focus, and the strong suit, of Magasin is in smart changes to other standards of the Vietnamese noodle shop script. Among the many spring roll fillings, for instance, are fried eggs and Chinese sausage, which is brick red, dense and chewy, almost like jerky. Grilled meat and jasmine rice is another standard Vietnamese combo, but at Magasin the meat is balanced on a molded cylinder of rice with the striking addition of an egg sitting sunny-side-up over that. Eyes follow these dishes around the room as waitresses deliver them.
Then there’s Magasin’s unconventional banh mi, the Vietnamese po-boy, which are made here on crusty baguettes from the nearby French bakery La Boulangerie. This kitchen foregoes the local normal Vietnamese loaf, with its airy crumb and crackly-crisp exterior, and that’s a big deal for banh mi, something akin to a muffuletta maker switching to kaiser rolls. The result succeeds in framing a familiar Vietnamese staple in a new way. And from the dishes it serves to the atmosphere it sets, that seems to be Magasin’s mission all over.
So, even if you think you know Vietnamese food inside-out by now, don’t be surprised if it’s you asking the questions here, too.
4201 Magasin St., New Orleans, 504-896-7611