As an American immigrant to Israel, one thing I miss the most from my time in the US is good Asian food. As many American Jews, I grew up with an affection for Chinese food whose doors were open to us during X-mas and as I aged I connected with a wider range of East Asian cuisines (Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indian) as well as even more Western Asian delights such as Persian & Yemeni though I choose to view Israeli/Levant cuisine as an offshoot of Mediterranean (which I still enjoy but see less schematic similarities with other Asian counterparts and more similarities to Greek & Turkish meals).
Sadly, my first few years in Israel, I wasn’t finding my way to many Chinese restaurants I liked for the food or the value and still I haven’t found one yet I’d personally recommend yet there is an encouraging proliferation of Thai, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants to complement the ubiquitess and often outstanding sushi/Japanese eateries that Israelis have supported so much so that shopping for wasabi and soy sauce is an easier task in Israel than in many parts of the US.
So when recently, I was invited to visit Vong: Vietnamese Kitchen, a relatively new Vietnamese restaurant at 15 Rothschild in Tel Aviv, I accepted the invitation with cautious optimism (which honestly as a food writer is how I typically approach any restaurant I’m tasked to write about). As a stand alone restaurant, I had hopes that Vong would be somewhat similar to Vietnamese or Thai restaurants I frequented in the US rather than some of the less inspired chain locations I’ve sampled once too many times here.
I wasn’t disappointed and in fact I was overwhelmingly pleased. From the location, the atmosphere, the food and the service I was quite impressed
Near the corner of Rothschild and Herzl (and a near a new underground parking lot where Rothschild begins) Vong looks out onto one of Tel Aviv’s iconic yet intimate parkways and looks out onto one of Israel’s most recognizable public pieces of art: the statue of a mounted Mayor Dizzengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor. So, the statue serves as an easy reference point for people meeting there for the first time.
Once inside (assuming you’re not eating at one of their several sidewalk adjacent tables: ideal for smokers and people watchers), during the daylight hours, the decor is fairly unassuming but still inviting and like many restaurants is designed and is far more charming with dim lighting at night. It’s fairly intimate so I can imagine on a busy night or lunch rush even taking their food to go for sitting on a bench or taking to an office for a working lunch or a romantic night at home but it’s a nice venue for a business lunch or a first date but a little cramped for impressing VIP clients or for big parties..
Now to the food, I wouldn’t bother giving so much pretext on a restaurant whose edibles weren’t laudable and as I write this, I’m salivating thinking about my next visit.
The menu selections are divided into salads, banh & more, rolls & dumplings, soups, wok & more, comfort food, drinks (soft) and desserts with a separate wine and cocktail list with dishes marked as to which are vegetarian (over a dozen that don’t lack the character, charm or gravitas that many veggie dishes lack at other joints), spicy/hot dishes and gluten-free (also about a dozen choices).
I sampled several dishes and was delighted by each so it left me curious to try one of the dozens of dishes I’ve yet to taste.
From the salads, I tried the Goi-Ga (42 NIS) a cabbage based salad adorned with shredded chicken in a ginger garlic marinade with mint, red onion, coriander and lime juice. It’s a nice choice for a refreshing light meal that has a lot of stereotypical Viet flavor profiles. On my next visit, I look forward to tasting their spicy beef salad as beef salads are one my favorite lunch choices no matter if eating Asian or at a steakhouse.
My next dish was a new favorite I’ve tried in different incarnations at different venues and so far have always been more than satisfied. Banh (or “cloudy buns”) are slider sized sandwiches on soft pillow like steamed rolls and at Vong come two to an order ( as who ever serves or orders one slider). Vong offers beef, chicken, fish or veggie Banh which are individually tailored so they aren’t the same sandwich with different proteins.
The Beef Banh (39 NIS) features aptly described aromatic slow cooked beef with green onion, coriander, chili and an Aioli dressing. With two sliders it’s a nice appetizer to split but a little light as a meal on its own. I’d like to see them offer an add on option for a third Banh for 15-20 NIS more or even a Banh combo of any three for a 55-60 NIS.
Cay Chicken (39 NIS) is also offered (and maybe overlooked ) in the Banh section of the menu. It’s tender chunks of chicken served on a crunchy wafer of rice with a yogurt and chili dressing. It’s a simple yet well executed dish but would be better served if there was a ” House specials” section on the menu.
Fresh Veggie Rolls (34 NIS) is one of the eight dumpling or roll selections and come as a serving with 4 pieces. Viet rolls vary dramatically from Chinese egg rolls with lighter rice paper being used instead of a deep fried shell. Veggies, coriander and a scrumptious peanut sauce that also is more common in Thai and Viet kitchens than Chinese also guarantee that these treats don’t sit long on the plate.
Bok Choy Beef Noodles ( 56 NIS) comes from their Wok selections and I’m a an admitted Bok Choy junkie so the sauteed beef with leek, bok choy and mint served on wide noodles was both filling and enjoyable.
Vong opens daily at 12 noon and is often open to midnight or the last customer every day of the week and as such isn’t kosher (that and a selection of Viet authentic shrimp based dishes). Business lunches are the regular dishes at 10% off 12-5PM.
Vong also features a Happy Hour 4-7PM which is buy one drink, get one free (per patron) and includes their wine, beer and cocktail list. The wine list contains 7 whites and only one Israeli and surprisingly no slightly sweet semi-dry wines by the glass or the bottle which are popular choices at Asian restaurants in the US. The reds are more tourist friendly with their reds including four Israeli reds though I think a Pinot Noir (Israeli or imported) would be a good pairing wine over heavier reds.
The 3 Sparkling wines could have included one from Carmel, Tishbi, Yarden, Teperberg or Tabor and a sweet Moscato would be a nice selection to match their several spicy selections.
With 9 beers to choose from, it’s also disappointing that the only Israeli beer they have is commercial Goldstar when there are over 100 labels of mostly fine Israeli boutique beers to choose from.
Being within steps of some of Tel Aviv’s most historic buildings and pieces of public art, I hope the management finds a way to feature more Israeli beverages that match their menu. It’s really the only thing that resembles a flaw on what other wise is restaurant easy to recommend. I guess their corkage policy is worth exploring but that’s an unfair expectation for tourists.
So, in closing, I look forward to returning back to Vong again and again for their vibrant, fresh and flavorful offerings but hope the next time or sometime in the near future that the wines and beers are as interesting and better paired as the delectable dishes served.
Vong Vietnamese Kitchen 15 Rothschild, Tel Aviv (03) 633-7171