In 2003, Atlanta's Vietnamese dining culture was little more than pho and noodle dives scattered along Buford Highway and mingled into the landscape of Jimmy Carter Boulevard's strip malls.
Alex and Chris Kinjo, brothers who have a mom from Vietnam and a dad from Japan, changed all that when they opened Nam in Midtown. The two had made a name for themselves with Midtown's MF Sushibar, serving sushi and Japanese delicacies in a hip environment with an emphasis on fresh and authentic. Alex quickly became known for his outspoken style and Chris became the man with "magic fingers" behind the sushi bar.
Six years later, this elegant restaurant remains the city's finest example of Vietnamese fine dining. A few other contenders — most notably Chateau de Saigon — stand their ground, but there is no other Vietnamese dining experience in the city that can compare with this jewel of a restaurant.
Nam was the first to turn our sophomoric notions of Vietnamese cuisine on its ear, and Alex's hip, flowing design, cut from a small space enhanced with flowing, organza-like sheers to seclude tables, low lighting, white tablecloths and elegantly dressed waitresses has changed little since its conception.
The Kinjos' mother, Anh Hoang, designed the menu and is still chef, bringing to Atlanta Vietnamese classics such as "shaking beef" and clay pot catfish, as well as the restaurant's signature banh nam — unforgettable rice flour tamales made of a soft dough of rice with minced pork and shrimp and wrapped delicately in a banana leaf, sprinkled with chile sauce peppered with fresh, thin slices of jalapeños.
These, and many more, have become must-haves since the restaurant opened. Flavors are thoughtful, fresh and honest, and allow for Vietnamese traditions while embracing the modern attitude that is Alex Kinjo's unmistakable trademark.
In fact, Nam has settled so well into midlife that I almost take it for granted, a mistake we should never make with our favorite restaurants. Nam came along right when we needed it — a delicate blossom that opened to reveal lots of tasty, exciting secrets — some oddly familiar, others wildly exotic. Just because we've gotten used to it doesn't make it any less of a gem. I can never stay away too long from the shaking beef, bits of tenderloin with butter-like texture, barely kissed by heat, then dabbed through a slurry of salt, pepper and fresh lime juice. Or Vietnamese crepes of rice flour laced with turmeric and pan-fried with shrimp and bean sprouts until it is ethereally crisp on the outside while forgivingly soft and hot as you bite into it.
A good deal of the fun of clay pot catfish has been taken away — this spicy, rich dish is usually cooked and served in, well ... a clay pot. A South Vietnamese specialty, at Nam it is served in a pretty white bowl. While that removes some of the mystery of the dish, none of the flavor is missing. Deep, dark caramel surrounds tufts of white, fleshy-yet-firm fish, with lots of spice and garlic.
Ribs are meaty and tender, with chile and garlic spicing things up so much you'll need to drink wine to dash the flaming flavor. Wine options are not afterthoughts — it's nice to be able to sip a Viognier while nibbling on bits of green papaya salad. But if there were one improvement I'd make to Nam, it would be a cocktail list as intricately designed as the rest of the menu. Alas, the restaurant only serves beer and wine. For dessert, don't look for anything past the luscious Vietnamese coffee, rich and strong, flavored with sweetened condensed milk.
While plenty of attractive options have lured me away from Nam, I find myself always wanting, sooner or later, to go back.
Food: Vietnamese with a modern touch
Price range $$$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: Lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. from 5:30-9:30 p.m. and Fri. and Sat. from 5:30-10:30 p.m.
Best dishes: Rice flour tamales, "shaking" beef, Vietnamese crepes, clay pot catfish, papaya salad
Vegetarian selections: Many options, including lemongrass tofu
Children: For adventurous eaters
Parking: Adjacent lot
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Address, telephone: 931 Monroe Drive, Suite A-101, Atlanta, 404-541-9997
Web site: www.namrestaurant.com
KEY TO RATINGS
Outstanding: Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
Excellent: One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Very good: Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
Good: A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
Fair: The food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
PRICING CODE: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. (The price code represents a meal for one that includes appetizer, entree and dessert without including tax, tip and cocktails.)