It's hard not to think of Argyle Street when sitting in the three-tiered, white leather glow of Sawtooth's Randolph row digs (the old Salthaus spot) – especially when first-time restaurateur Dzuy Dao tells his tale of walking over the Vietnam-Thailand border for three days with his family in the early 1980s. Chicagoans are used to pho in battered ceramic bowls, not ergonomic porcelain.
So goes the bravado of Dao's aim to pull off upscale Vietnamese, enlisting longtime family friend and chef de cuisine Nick Nguyen, also a newbie to his trade. They go big or go home with silver-plated takes on street food staples like cha ca la vong, a usual ginger and saffron grilled fish skewer, that Nguyen subs out with turmeric and flash fries to give it some texture.
The only problem is going big means going Western, and all of those wonderful punch of flavors that Vietnamese food slings in spades, from fish sauce to chili flake, takes a back seat to image and balance. Watercress beef is nestled in dainty little miso spoons with a soft brush of sweet vinegar and onion broth, yet there’s not a garlic note in sight.
The space is beautiful, outfitted in Dao's leftover high-end furniture pieces from his previous profession on Chicago/Wells. And balance is certainly an apt feature of a place named after an herb. Tag-lining your mission with "authentic Vietnamese cuisine," however, can be a little confusing.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Gavin Paul