Is there any better way to unleash your imagination than standing at the ocean’s edge, taking in the sea air, and letting your gaze fall over the undulating waters toward the horizon?
Exotic dining can do the same, transporting you to a different place and time. On a small stretch of Humphrey Street in Swampscott, you can experience both, thanks to Nguyen’s Vietnamese Cuisine & Sushi Bar.
Housed in a nondescript building across the street from a dentist’s office and the Atlantic, Nguyen’s (pronounced “wins”) offers diners an ethnic travelogue through Vietnam, with a side trip to Japan. The second restaurant north of Boston opened by brothers Kevin and John Nguyen — who also own Maki Sushi in Peabody — is in a wonderful location, but the real treat is the epicurean destinations on their menu.
The restaurant’s décor is neat-as-a-pin and simple, with contemporary, comfortable furnishings in basic black and white, impeccable linens, and bone china. The dining room and sushi bar are snug, and could potentially feel a little crowded on a busy evening.
My wife and I visited in the early evening and had our choice of seating. We selected a table for two by Nguyen’s large front windows. According to our hostess, the table was the most popular in the restaurant, and for good reason. The black blinds allow as much, or as little, light and visuals as you’d like, and the thick windows keep outside noise outside.
The wait staff was personable and knowledgeable, attentive without being intrusive. The easy pacing of the service complemented the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere, which is just what the two of us needed after a hectic week.
We began our odyssey with an order of beef carpaccio ($11), a melt-in-your-mouth sirloin served in thinly sliced strips accompanied by fresh cilantro, peanuts, scallions, and lime juice, and the seaweed salad ($7). The salad was a small serving with a big taste, featuring brilliant green wakame seaweed marinated in sesame oil, spices, and sesame seeds.
Next up, we sampled a sumo roll ($14) from the sushi menu. This tempura-style roll was another flavor sensation, combining tuna, salmon, white tuna (escolar), and kanikama (a white fish often used as imitation crab) with cream cheese, avocado topped with three different house sauces, masago, and scallions. Served warm, the cream cheese dominated, but the mix of tastes was captivating. I was also duly impressed with a simple tuna with brown rice nigiri sushi ($5, two pieces).
The appetizer and sushi portions were so generous that we took plenty of time before ordering our main courses, with my wife nursing a crisp Monkey Bay sauvignon blanc ($6), while I enjoyed a refreshing Tiger beer ($5) from Singapore. And perusing Nguyen’s menu, with 15 entrées, including five vegetarian, not to mention several daily specials, is a time-consuming exercise.
My wife eventually choose pho ($15, chicken), Nguyen’s version of a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. The large, sculpted bowl of chicken and beef broth came with ample chunks of tender chicken and rice noodles called bánh pho, garnished with bean sprouts, onions, scallions, and Asian greens. The aromatic broth, and its strong cinnamon component, intrigued my wife. Our waitress said the chef employs cinnamon instead of relying on monosodium glutamate, which isn’t used at all at Nguyen’s. The dish can also be ordered with sirloin steak ($17) or Kobe beef ($25).
I was torn between two entrées that our waitress said were best-sellers. The bánh xèo ($17) features a pan-fried rice flour crêpe flavored with coconut milk and mung bean, filled with bean sprouts, onions, pork, and shrimp, and topped with Nguyen’s house sauce.
My first inclination, though, was to order the bún thit nuong ($18), which consists of barbecued pork served with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, fresh herbs, and an egg roll, finished with the house sauce.
Our waitress suggested the bánh xèo, saying it was a lighter dish with bolder flavors than the barbecued pork. Having sated my iron cravings with the carpaccio, and being a fan of coconut, I went with her recommendation. The dish, as promised, was delicious, though light on the pork and shrimp. Fortunately for me, my wife was willing to share her pho, and that took care of any of my lingering hunger pangs.
Nguyen’s also offers three desserts, including tempura cheesecake ($8) and banana wontons ($8), with fresh banana slices wrapped in crispy wontons and served with vanilla ice cream, but neither of us had any room to spare.
I have to admit, though, that I left Nguyen’s still curious about the barbecued pork, and several other dishes, such as the clay pot entrée ($25) with salmon simmered in a caramel sauce, and the Nguyen’s burger ($17). So my game plan now is to make another reservation, with the notion of trying the bún thit nuong and a few different sushi offerings, while definitely saving room for dessert.
Nguyen’s isn’t inexpensive, but we returned home with enough pho for another meal and some change from our $100. We considered it money well spent for a dining experience that was both inviting and imaginative.