Edible art

Public eating may be taboo among the anorexic-hipster set out gallery-hopping on First Thursday, but thankfully many neighborhood restaurants have stepped in to fill the gap. One of the best locations for First Thursday chow in the Pearl is Pho Van. Their menu features a number of traditional Vietnamese dishes, many with a bistro flare with Western ingredients added and a modern style of plating. The environment is quite cozy, with dark earth tones and subdued decoration. During the evening hours the feel is quite intimate. When the sun is out, the space becomes airy and bright. There is also outdoor seating for warmer weather, and having dinner while watching the gallery owners and artists put the final touches on their openings is always fun.

The actual menu can be a bit difficult to navigate. Dishes with bold, exotic flavors are indistinguishable from those with a subtler, refined profile, suitable for a connoisseur more so than an explorer. Thankfully, the wait staff is friendly and knowledgeable about their menu and all of the specifics of traditional Vietnamese food. Everything that I have ordered upon the server’s advice has been excellent. The wait staff is far from snobby, and provides excellent service whether you show up dressed in suits and dresses or Carharts and dreadlocks.

On my most recent visit, we were inadvertently served a dish containing shellfish when we’d ordered a vegetarian appetizer. This sort of thing happens all the time in the restaurant world. The way that it is handled reveals much more about the establishment than the mistake does. Our server was efficient and courteous, letting us know what happened before we finished the appetizer and after hearing that nobody in our party was allergic to shellfish, he brought out the vegetarian spring rolls. Both types were excellent, served with a very flavorful pepper sauce.

The best special entree is, hands down, the tamarind lamb. Tamarind is a fruit that has a sour flavor and is used in many different Indian, Southeast Asian and Mexican dishes, among others. In addition to being sour, tamarind also has a subtle, fruity flavor that can be easily lost. The chef used the fruit in a crust baked onto the lamb. This meat is well-known to pair nicely with fruit flavors. The delicate balance of flavors in this dish reminded me that there are many more types of fruit than are normally used in Western cuisine. It served as an inspiration to my own cooking quite a bit more than any other Portland restaurant I have visited in quite a while. The portions tend to run on the larger side so some wine, an appetizer and a split entree are probably perfect for a party of two.

Inspiration, relaxation and cultural enrichment – what more could you want from First Thursday