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Originally published Friday, February 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Softer, sexier version of Monsoon blossoms in Bellevue

Monsoon East, Eric and Sophie Banh's Eastside restaurant, is a softer, sexier version of the Seattle original. Many of the menu's three dozen dishes soar: Start with something from the raw bar, move on to bo la lot beef, claypot-cooked catfish or luc lac filet mignon. Reviewed by Providence Cicero.

Special to The Seattle Times

Monsoon East3 stars

Vietnamese

10245 Main St., Bellevue

425-635-1112

www.monsoonrestaurants.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; lunch 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays; happy hour 3-6:30 p.m. daily.

Prices: $$/$$$ (lunch entrees $6.50-$24; dinner entrees $6.50-$32).

Drinks: Full bar; intriguing cocktails and well-curated wine list.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Surprisingly moderate given all the hard surfaces.

Who should go: A relaxed spot for Eastsiders seeking upscale Asian fare.

Credit cards: All major cards.

Access: No obstacles to access.

Have you noticed how many Seattle restaurants are sprouting a Bellevue branch? El Gaucho has moved into City Center Plaza, Boom Noodle is opening at Bellevue Square and Wild Ginger is headed for The Bravern. Joining this dining diaspora are Sophie and Eric Banh, who opened Monsoon East on Main Street in December.

Those Saigon-born siblings are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the original Monsoon on Capitol Hill this month, yet on a recent Saturday night both were cooking for a packed house in Bellevue. They must wish they could clone themselves along with the restaurant, but they've done perhaps the next best thing: bringing aboard Johnny Zhu as executive chef.

The Shanghai-born Zhu has worked in kitchens as diverse as Spice Market in New York, Alinea in Chicago, and Veil in Seattle, where he was chef de cuisine. What changes he may effect here will be interesting to watch, but for now the Bellevue menu keeps faith with the vibrant modern Vietnamese fare, including the signature dishes (drunken chicken, claypot catfish, bo la lot beef) that have had Seattleites swooning for a decade,

Unlike its Seattle sibling, Monsoon East has a license to dispense spirits, and a raw bar. Intriguing cocktails — with and without alcohol — employ Asian flavors to great effect. They complement a collection of wines carefully tuned to the pitch of the food, as well as the thoughtful selection of loose teas brewed by the pot.

The raw bar highlights local oysters and sashimi, among them a plate of rapture-inducing kona kampachi. Pungent rau ram, a citrusy corianderlike herb, dotted those coral-tipped leaves of pale, translucent fish glistening with lime juice and hazelnut oil.

The kitchen puts out nearly three dozen dishes. While some registered as ho-hum (wokked flatiron steak heavy with garlic and ginger) and a few stumbled (nearly raw garlic overwhelmed bitter pea vines; smelly mussels and mushy fish marred Vietnamese bouillabaisse), the majority soared.

I'm thinking of squid, whether presented as little grilled torpedoes packed with jicama and duck meat savory with basil and spice, or as tender fried rings crowning a frisée salad ripe with tropical fruit, water chestnuts and cashews in creamy pink vinaigrette.

I'm recalling fresh rolls packed with mesclun, mango, avocado and shrimp; and cigar-shaped bo la lot beef made with tender meat and crunchy jicama encased in betel leaves brittle and charred from the grill; as well as the vigorous sauces paired with each.

There's also beautifully braised bok choy with black wood ear mushrooms, which crackle like cellophane between your teeth; slippery vermicelli noodles tossed with duck egg and oyster mushrooms; and spectacular luc lac filet mignon. Oxtail broth moistens those nubile nuggets of wok-seared steak, their richness in bold relief to a salt, pepper and lime dipping sauce of startling astringency.

Oxtail broth also makes an intoxicating pho rippling with star anise and slices of fatty flank steak. It's among the noodle and rice bowls featured at lunch, when I also reveled in the charm of claypot-cooked catfish and green onions sizzling in a sweetly caramelized, chili-stoked sauce.

Monsoon East is a softer, sexier version of the original. While the bar offers front-row seats to the kitchen, the dining room is a dim and soothing den of dark wood burnished by the warm glow of candles and light diffused through many muslin shades. Wine racks and sheer billowing curtains divide the front dining room from a smaller one tucked in the back.

The kitchen operates with intensity yet smooth efficiency, attributes not always mirrored in the front of the house, where things can get chaotic as the dinner hour peaks, and patrons clog the entryway and narrow lounge waiting for tables. One night I lucked into a seat at the bar, where the busy bartender proved a markedly conscientious server. Servers were just as attentive in the dining room, though a bit less confident at lunch.

Watching the Banhs at work, you see them mentor and instruct their staff. Their ability to set standards, nurture talent and solidify a team has contributed to the longevity of Monsoon, and bodes well for the success of Monsoon East.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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