Sometimes, the hopes for a new restaurant are just too high. Anh and Chi is a classic example. For months, you've been listening to people (everyone from your elderly auntie to your hipster nephew) rave about this modern Vietnamese eatery, and you've been reading all about it in glossy design magazines. So, when you finally go for dinner, the table will be set with weighty expectations – and will collapse, as is almost inevitable.
The room, an eclectic jungle of brushed brass, mid-century modernism and bright neoclassical tile, is as lovely as everyone says. You are tickled by a vibrant green palm-leaf motif, echoed from the stained-glass window behind a welcoming bar to the iconic Martinique wallpaper in the sexy unisex bathroom. Graphic woodcuts, radial-patterned chopsticks and a custom chandelier that looks like a metallic waterfall of straw hats keep your eyes engaged at every turn.
You did not, however, expect the small tables to be squeezed together as tightly as a Parisian bistro. "Excuse me, is that the short rib?" you ask your neighbours, resisting the urge to swipe a bone because, well, it's almost right under your fingers.
The bar program is a revelation for a Vietnamese restaurant, at least in Vancouver, which has only ever known mom-and-pop pho shops. Here you can order fine B.C. wines, local craft beers and fancy cocktails.
But does the frothy tequila sour with green tea and pear bitters really need this much potpourri? The dried chamomile and rose petals keep getting caught in your throat. You go get a straw from the bar (because the server is ignoring you, again). Then you ask for the drink to be strained. And still, the oversized ice cubes (too large for the glass) keep knocking you in the nose.
The Street-Side Platter (from the food menu's "bucket list" of nouveau-plated classics) is a nice assortment of smoky grilled prawns, fatty chicken thigh, sweet beef in betel leaf, springy pork sausage and thickly battered spring rolls served in a straw basket. But where are the mixed herbs, you wonder, searching through a mound of limp leaf lettuce? Shouldn't the daikon and carrots be pickled and moist instead of dry and flecked with dirt? The rice vermicelli has congealed into one big inseparable clump. The sweetness in the nuoc cham dipping sauce far outweighs its salty, sour and spicy components. And after your second rice wrap dipped in hot water disintegrates into gummy mush, you are truly fed up with the DIY presentation.
In the meantime, two servers arrive with the rest of your meal. Where would they like to put it, on your lap? There is no room on the table so the servers take the dishes back to the kitchen, where they wilt under heat lamps for the next 10 to 15 minutes. When they return to the table, the fried snapper is soggy and the fresh, stir-fried water spinach is grey.
The owner, who is expediting at the pass, seems surprised when you send the dishes back and request new ones. You are glad you did, because the water spinach, tossed with great lashes of garlic and chili in a pungent yet perfectly balanced fish sauce, is as snappy and slippery as seaweed, and utterly addictive. This is a dish that belongs on the bucket list.
When your friend returns from the bathroom, you are still contemplating the purple-banana and baguette pudding. It's an elegant presentation, poured table-side with a cordial glass of warm Cognac coconut milk, but is it meant to be so glutinous and cold in the centre?
Your friend is still waiting to sit down. A small sliver of space – her only entry point – is occupied by a server, hunched over the next table. When you gently tap the server's arm, she swats you away like a fly without even looking up.
This is what the buzz is all about?
You can see how it would be easy to get swept up in the hype over Anh and Chi. It's a heartwarming story: owners Amelie and Vincent Nguyen are the children of Hoang and Ly Nguyen, refugees who fled Vietnam's post-war chaos to build a new life in Vancouver – and opened Pho Hoang, one of the city's first pho restaurants (circa 1983). When their father died in 2010, both relinquished their studies abroad and returned to Canada to help their mother keep the restaurant afloat. Neither had any prior interest in the hospitality business and, alas, their mother's heart was no longer in it.
Last year, they were forced to make a tough decision – close the restaurant or reinvent it. The goal of creating a stylish Vietnamese restaurant that sticks to the classics without becoming too fusion-y is a laudable one. So you give it a second shot.
The restaurant is far less busy this time and the service extremely gracious. You sit at a spacious table and think, yeah, it's really nice how they have managed to attract a younger clientele while maintaining their long-time regulars, including many multigenerational families.
You happily slurp a bowl of beefy pho huong (made from the father's old recipe and still cooked by his wife). The broth is dark, richly concentrated and warmly spiced with star anise. The thick noodles are springy, while the brisket and sirloin is fall-apart tender. The soup no longer includes tripe and tendon because all the new customers kept taking it out. Maybe that's not such a bad development, you think, given the global hunger crisis caused by first-world food waste.
You appreciate the rice paper salad, with its leaves presoftened in a messy, yet ambrosial riot of herbs, mango, beef jerky, roasted peanuts, dried shrimp and delicate quail eggs. The dressing pulls its fiery punch, but is otherwise tight.
The rice rolls are a bit heavy on the lettuce and vermicelli and light on the chicken, but well constructed. The bread pudding is warm, softly chunky and satisfying this time.
But it's the massive coconut-milk crepe that really captures your attention. The folded pancake is light, crispy and flecked with crunchy lentils. It's extremely sweet and very pretty, yet is stuffed with so much pork, prawn, bean sprouts and mung beans that it is bursting at the seams and falls apart when you try to cut it. The side selection of mixed herbs is paltry (only basil and perilla) and slightly limp. The carrot and daikon pickles are still dry and underwhelming. Although a very good dish, it lacks the finesse, freshness and attention to detail that might make it excellent.
Maybe this is what hype tastes like, you think.