Grace is the place

Mar 26, 2003 at 12:00 am

At Annam, it’s no accident that the simplicity and straightforwardness of Vietnamese cooking are matched by the serenity and minimalism of the restaurant’s design. “Everything is part of everything,” says owner Phuong Nguyen.

From the tiny candle lamps to the white napkins, everything your eye falls upon was chosen for a reason. Those fresh napkins are folded differently for lunch than for dinner, Nguyen explains. You want more elegance when you’re dressed up for dinner out than when you’re on your lunch break from Ford HQ.

Nguyen spent 19 years in Paris, where she managed a French restaurant, having moved there from Saigon in 1976. (She revisits both cities regularly.) She believes her time in France taught her the importance of ambience. “Everything is part of the pleasure to sit down here,” she says.

Customers fall in love with Annam, Nguyen says, because it’s “pure, and that’s relaxing. It’s not overwhelming.”

Yes. Think of a high-priced restaurant (let’s not call names) that tries to knock your socks off with the surroundings. This can be fine — the aim is to make you feel jazzed, hot — and it probably works on some people.

At Annam, by contrast, your senses are not bombarded. You can choose what to notice. And when you do, you’ll see only grace.

Annam is a long, narrow space, seating just 45. A counter fronting the business area juts out awkwardly into the room, breaking up the flow from the door in the back to the wall-size window on busy Michigan Avenue. As you come in, the entry hall extends alongside the open kitchen. It’s not an ideal space for a setting that aspires to serenity.

So Nguyen has thought hard about making the most of her small locale. On that awkward counter sit three white Phalaneopsis orchids, cascading their blooms in three graceful arcs. They are native to Southeast Asia. To provide a counterbalancing upward lift, Nguyen has added a branch of tortuous willow to each pot. Each plant becomes a still life, a moment of calm in what is by function a busy and commercial part of the room.

Above the counter hang lanterns made of raw silk in a dark copper color. Nguyen sometimes wears a traditional close-fitting Vietnamese dress of the same silk.

To shield diners from Michigan Avenue traffic, she’s hung a roll-down bamboo curtain that lets in plenty of light. It’s decorated with gold fern leaves that Nguyen found at a tacky Dearborn craft store — an item you would surely walk right past. Yet somehow Nguyen knew: “At night, they’re shimmering,” she says.

The long entryway is hung with pictures of Vietnamese scenes. A few brush strokes suggest a bevy of schoolgirls on bikes, in conical hats. Nguyen’s prize piece hangs there: a dark red lacquer plaque with two austere dragons in gold. If this sounds like a Chinese restaurant stereotype, forget it. The plaque is simple, not flamboyant, suggesting expensive good taste.

Annam’s walls are pale yellow and hung with small, clean watercolors of daily life in Vietnam in shades of black and gray. Nguyen bought them from a street artist in Saigon — “no one famous,” she says. A white Fuji mum, its slender petals bowing naturally, sits on each table. If you ask for chopsticks, as most diners do, they will be of mottled coconut wood from Vietnam. The curved chopstick rest of the same wood is so minimal it’s barely there, and yet it fulfills its humble function perfectly.

The same is true for the high-backed wicker chairs. They suggest a tropical climate while providing sturdy support. Anyone who’s ever meditated, or even just tried to get grounded, knows that you need to feel secure on your spot on the earth in order to feel calm and still. These Indonesian chairs are close-weaved and heavy-duty. They feel right without calling attention to the fact that someone is taking care of you.

A bamboo plant sits in one corner of the restaurant. It’s sere and dry, but she keeps it, says Nguyen, because the shape is still beautiful. From it hang a few red and gold envelopes containing money, a New Year’s custom.

Underneath sits a gleaming gold Buddha, surrounded by gifts meant to promote good luck, good health and prosperity. He and a smaller Buddha on the counter have been offered kiwis and vivid orange kumquats, burning incense and mums and a heap of coins. One wears on his chest a dollar bill folded into a rosette, and wields a rolled-up bill like a baton.

Visually, the Buddhas are not in keeping with the minimalist feel of the rest of the setting. Although to Westerners the Buddha means serenity, these slightly gaudy guys don’t play that role in a scene that’s already tranquil. Instead they’re a reminder that commerce will intrude upon art. So we remember, as we should, that Vietnam is a real place whose citizens work for a living, not Shangri-la. I believe that Phuong Nguyen cares about her customers, but she’s not doing this just for the fun of it.

When dinner is served, the simple white dishes are unobtrusively graceful, a foil for the sometimes radiant colors of the food. “Vietnamese bouillabaisse,” for example, is a brilliant orange, topped with whole stalks of grassy cilantro. The shallow three-compartment sauce dish that comes with the appetizer sampler illustrates perfectly the Annam principle of less equals more. Looking at it, you cannot imagine a better way to serve yellow (tamarind), bright red (pepper) and brown (peanut). Hot sauce comes in an elegant long-necked bottle with a cork.

Nguyen takes pains to stress that Vietnamese food is “not only ethnic. It can be international at the same level as any other cuisine.” It is sophisticated enough, she believes, to compete with French cooking, with its fresh herbs and vegetables and subtler spicing than Thai or Chinese food. “Vietnamese food doesn’t jump to the taste right away,” she says. “It gives people the pleasure to discover the tastes that we use. It’s elegant because it’s healthy.”

The serene version of Buddha would agree. Everything is part of everything.


Annam Restaurant Vietnamien is at 22053 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn. Lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner, Monday-Saturday; call 313-565-8744.

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Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]