I hadn't been to Pho Paris since its move to Scalea's old location in Covington. I was immediately charmed. The space is warm and inviting and the staff attentive without being fussy -- just the kind of spot to settle in for a relaxed evening of good food.
As my husband and I were led to the exact spot we had last dined at Scalea's, I took in our surroundings. The dark wood surrounding the narrow bar area broadens as you step up into the dining room, which unfolds into a dining solarium and finally a cozy outdoor patio. The staff, lurking in the kitchen doorway behind us, watched our roving eyes, ready to bounce on whatever it was we needed.
And while the restaurant's atmosphere has changed from its previous Oakley location (more neighborhood bistro than big-city trendy), the menu has retained its unique French-Vietnamese theme.
The appetizers selection on the winter menu included one of my perennial favorites, Shrimp Cold Roll ($9), as well as a crunchy Duck Leg Confit Wonton ($10), which comes with an orange gastrique (a reduction of vinegar or wine, sugar and orange) and spicy mixed cabbage salad. Since I'd already sampled these, however, I took our server's recommendation and ordered the Crab Cake ($11). Husband, fearless of slurping down little furry woodland creatures, went with one of the specials, a Rabbit Salad ($9). Both dishes were, well, pleasing to the eye is really too tame a phrase
The seared crab cake topped a fan of thin cucumber slices and a neat mound of spicy Asian slaw and was finished with a fresh, spring cap of herbs and scallion spears. The cake itself was creamy and meaty. I didn't think it could get any better, until I dipped it in the dollops of spicy mint mayo.
When our server initially described the rabbit salad, both husband and I were expecting the usual free-form variety. Instead, a crazy circular tower of field greens and dried cherries topped with a thin layer of rabbit meat was set before him. Chef de Cuisine Jared Whalen said that he braises a whole rabbit, then pulls it apart and mixes the meat with whole-grain mustard and a little mayonnaise as well as a flourish of Italian fruit mostarda, fruit preserved in syrup, a rice wine vinaigrette and dabs of Chinese hot mustard. (Whelan's summer menu comes out as this is being published and includes all of the aforementioned appetizers, including the rabbit.)
The scent of husband's entrée, a Curry Rubbed Lamb Porterhouse ($27), enwrapped us in this little curry envelope no one could break through. It was like a magic bubble where nothing bad could happen. The accompanying fondue of leeks, shiitakes and bell peppers with fingerling potatoes in a bordelaise sauce was the perfect foil for the strong spice. It's funny how brilliant the color of fresh ingredients are. It even made the vividly painted walls a little pale in comparison.
For my dinner I ordered a small bowl of the restaurant's namesake, Traditional Pho ($7/$13), and a Vietnamese Crepe ($9) off the appetizer menu. (I knew there needed to be room for dessert.)
The rice noodles of the soup floated in a gingery shimmering sea spiked with lemongrass and garlic. You can order it as a vegetarian dish or add chunks of chicken or beef.
I'm not the type of person that's usually satisfied with a bowl of soup for dinner. You eat soup for lunch. I'm a good Midwesterner and expect dinner to come with meat and potatoes, but Pho Paris made a true convert out of me. The steaming bowl was served with garnishes of cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and a spicy hoisin sauce that I quickly plopped in my bowl before slurping it all down. It's comfort food like no other.
My crepe, a crispy custard laced with curry and stuffed with chicken, shrimp and shiitakes, was just as satisfying as I crunched through it and its romaine wrapper topped with the subtle spice of the nvoc mam (fish) sauce.
For dessert, husband chose the White Chocolate Wasabi Bavarois ($8) and I had the Orange Scented Frangipane Tart ($8). The white chocolate wasabi did manage to scratch a little hole in our curry bubble -- in my mind these two ingredients should just be kept on opposite sides of the kitchen. The half moon of white chocolate mousse was served over a rice crispy sort of base. The raspberry sorbet that came with the mousse, however, was delectable.
The tart was my favorite flavor in the world: almond. Studded with blackberries on a black pepper crust with a thyme ice cream. Ah! My only regret was I could only eat half -- but the other half made for a stellar breakfast. ©
Go: 318 Greenup St., Covington
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Friday; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Pho, seafood, and vegetarian appetizers
Accessibility: Valet parking available, a few steps up into dining room