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Monday, June 02, 2014

Viva Vietnamese!

From the Fridge Dept.: Yesterday’s post was a very recent review of a year-old Vietnamese restaurant in Albany. But the first incursion into the Capital Region of that cuisine was in 1987, when Truc’s Orient Express opened on Schenectady’s State Street. It didn’t last long. Vietnamese immigrant Binh Duong opened the first Truc’s in Hartford, Connecticut, and soon added units in Springfield and West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as well as branches in Schenectady and Boca Raton. Only the West Stockbridge restaurant endures. Here’s my 27-year-old review of the Schenectady place.


DON'T MAKE THE COMMON MISTAKE of confusing Vietnamese cuisine with Chinese cookery. The two share ingredients, yes, but you'll find more affinity between the techniques of France and Vietnam. Indeed, Vietnamese restaurants are so popular in Paris that they have long outnumbered Chinese establishments.

I can't find a photo of the Schenectady
Truc's, so here's an image of the
still-in-business branch in
West Stockbridge.
“Gourmet Vietnamese Cuisine” came to Schenectady a few months ago when the Truc family opened Orient Express a few doors down from Proctor’s Theatre in the former La Patisserie location, adding to a their successful restaurants in Hartford and West Stockbridge.

Why “Gourmet?” The menu offers a broad selection of the classic dishes from the three culinary regions of the country, but does so at some very fancy prices.

Perhaps this was why the place was nearly empty on a recent Monday evening: it’s not the sort of place frequented by any but the well-heeled, and we who live near downtown do so because well-heeled we’re not.

I went in the company of former merchant seaman Jim, whose last visit to a Vietnamese restaurant took place in Saigon. “It was a place called Mai Canh Floating Restaurant,” he recalled. “I rode a water taxi from the ship to the restaurant. The friend I was with said the place had been bombed a few months before, so he didn’t think it would happen again soon...”

Dramatic wartime stories are a striking contrast to the serenity of the newly-decorated Orient Express interior, with its soft colors of blonde oak and Yuppie pink.

The five appetizers and 25 entrees offer a cornucopia of delicate preparations of vegetables, meat and fish. Emphasis is on fresh vegetables, tangy sauces with just a hint of thickening, and the saltlike anchovy-derived seasoning nuoc mam.

Jim started with Lemon Chicken, a hot appetizer ($4) that presents two skewers of little breast bits, marinated in lemon and broiled until firm.

The flavor is subtle and the presentation is gorgeous, with a fresh vegetable accompaniment carefully arranged on the plate.

My order of chicken with grapefruit melange ($4.75) is enough for two: the unusual pairing of chicken pieces and grapefruit slices is rounded out by the vinegary house sauce, along with shreds of red and white cabbage, carrots and onions, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

You’ll find a generous selection of soups and salads also to choose from for starters – if you don’t go on a Proctor’s night. When there’s a show down the street, the menu is pared down to accommodate the extra business.

Jim elected to battle a burgeoning cold with the Hot & Sour Shrimp Soup ($9.50), a tureen of potent brew just spicy enough to clear his head a little, and packed with jumbo shrimp. As well as lemon leaves, peppers, and the unusually-shaped straw mushrooms. (“This is a mushroom?” Jim declared, studying his spoon. “I have enough trouble eating mushrooms that look like mushrooms! Forget these things!”)

Lemongrass Duck ($11.50) was the best preparation of the fowl I’ve had anywhere. Stripped of all but the leg bones, fried to a noisy crispness, served with a sauce I took to be a variant of the popular nuoc cham, a spicy concoction with garlic and the citronella root that gives the entree its name.

A salad is served on the side, the star of which is the Special Truc’s House Vinaigrette, more pungent and sweet than any vinaigrette I’ve had before.

We sipped some Jasmine tea as I enjoyed a wonderfully fluffy lemon mousse for dessert.

It’s been said that Vietnamese cooking foreshadowed the Nouvelle Cuisine movement by centuries with its emphasis on freshness and small portions. Here the freshness is intact, but the portions are Americanically larger.

Service is efficient but laconic, which may be indicative of a slow night; there seemed to be only two or three people on staff. Orient Express also offers a lunch menu with much the same fare at substantially lower prices; that might be the time to begin your acquaintanceship with the place.

Dinner for two, with tax, tip and tea, was $45. METROLAND restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experiences may differ.

Truc’s Orient Express – 450 State Street, Schenectady, 346-xxxx. Full bar. Lunch served 11:30-2:30 Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-9:30 Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday unless there’s a show at Proctor’s. Probably good to make a reservation on Proctor’s nights. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 16 April 1987

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