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restaurant review

Tamarind glazed cod at the Pure Vietnamese Restaurant in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 1, 2016.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

There are certain days, grey and dreary, when you are working at your desk at a snail's pace and you look out the window and think, "I could really use a bowl of pho."

Whether it's a big bowl of aromatic broth and noodles, or a plate of vermicelli topped with crispy spring rolls and grilled prawns that's your standard go-to, it's inarguable that Vietnamese cooking is one of those bright and bold cuisines that has a way of feeling exotic and yet comforting at the same time. Robust flavours, lemongrass and ginger, or chilies and sate, excite and warm at the same time.

Those kinds of ingredients, presented in an evolved and memorable way, is exactly what you can expect at Pure Contemporary Vietnamese.

See the food at Pure Contemporary Vietnamese

Chef and co-owner Lam Pham is young. Though he completed his culinary degree at SAIT several years ago, he already made a few ripples in the food scene when he helped open Watercress Express in early 2015. Looking back, the chef-driven, fast-casual Vietnamese concept seems to have been a stepping stone for Mr. Pham to this new eatery. Here, his creativity shines with a full-scale menu bursting with the usual suspects reimagined, from confit duck spring rolls to pot au pho and creations all his own.

The only time Pure falls short of feeling like a proper contemporary restaurant is with its interior. With a coat of dark grey paint and a layout reminiscent of a former nightclub (which it is), there's not much life in the room, especially if it happens to be sparsely populated.

Another slightly bewildering element to note here is the cocktail menu, which reads like it was designed for teens just of drinking age. Blue curaçao, melon liqueur and salted caramel Baileys are just a few examples of what you'll find in the custom highballs. The "Monkey King" was something I knew I probably shouldn't order, but did anyway. The peculiar combination of Malibu rum, crème de banane and soda was reminiscent of a white Freezie. So, if that's your summer treat of choice, then you may enjoy it. Otherwise, stick with a glass of wine or a beer here.

That said, once you bite into an appetizer, such as the crispy yet tender sous-vide pork wontons with green-apple slaw and house-made chili sauce, the drab paint job, lack of decor and the middling drink menu don't matter much anymore. The surroundings will fade away as your senses discover that the plate is where the party is. Tunnel vision, in this case, is a blessing.

The surf-and-turf salad rolls – grilled strips of beef wrapped up with noodles and crispy lettuce, topped with sate-marinated prawns – are tasty enough to start with, but the re-envisioned salad roll pales in comparison to the punchy, colossal flavours of many of the restaurant's other plates, including its signature, the char siu doughnut.

Tender sous-vide pork shoulder is marinated with a mix of ingredients including hoisin, five-spice and rice wine before being stuffed into a sweet, fried sesame doughnut along with pickled carrots, crispy cucumber, cilantro and subtly spicy sriracha aioli. The result is somewhere between an Asian-inspired slider and a bao. It's sweet, sticky, spicy and addicting. It is also one of the most delicious dishes I've eaten so far this year.

The tamarind-glazed cod is another home run by Pham – an all-bases-loaded home run. There's a little bit of everything going on here, in a beautiful way. The perfectly crispy sear on a nice cut of cod that's fork-tender, the sweet glaze of tamarind on top, the lightly dressed pomelo and herb salad on the side, all of it wading in a shallow pool of rich, silky-smooth coconut-cream sauce. At the end of the meal, one of us took the bowl and tipped it up to drain the final few drops. Delicious times like these do call for desperate measures, you know.

Then there are the egg noodles. Tucked into the side dish menu along with Pure's popular kimchi fried rice, they appear fairly bland, arriving seemingly as-is in a bowl topped with fried garlic. But looks can be deceiving. Tossed in a few splashes of a citrus soy sauce, as well as sate oil, the noodles are anything but boring. The one-two punch of the vibrant flavours made for a memorably spicy bite.

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