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Risky business at Saigon Sisters

An audacious young chef has his way with Vietnamese cuisine

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[Editor's note: Matt Eversman is slated to open his own restaurant in 2012.]

I spent an all-too-brief 14 days eating in Vietnam last summer. If it taught me anything, it's that I could spend 14 years there and still learn only a microfraction of what there is to know about the food. If I were 26-year-old chef Matt Eversman, who's never been to Vietnam at all, I'd be scared as hell. But what he and his equally young, equally not-Vietnamese cooks are putting out at Saigon Sisters tastes like they're not afraid of a damn thing.

In October owners Mary Nguyen Aregoni and Theresa Nguyen—with advisory support from their mom—surfed the momentum of their bahn mi stand in the Chicago French Market to open a glassy full-service restaurant a block away.

I'm wasn't crazy about the banh mi at the market—I've been spoiled by Nhu Lan Bakery. So I yawned when I heard about this place, where Eversman's intentions are announced on a low cabinet displaying Andrea Nguyen's fundamentalist Into the Vietnamese Kitchen next to David Chang's heretical Momofuku. (Don't ask me what the New York Times Cookbook is doing beside them.) But if Eversman—who externed at Trotter's and was a line cook at May Street Market before turning up here—actually studied those books, it makes perfect sense that he'd come up with something as audacious as grilled confit octopus clinging to a stretch of rice dyed black with cuttlefish ink. Adorned with thin slices of watermelon radish, it's a weird and delicious dish, as much like a Spanish arroz negro as a regular Vietnamese lunch.

It's built on the broken rice (com tam) that's employed in the working-class spots ubiquitous in any Vietnamese city. These cheaper, supposedly ignoble grains have shattered in processing, and when cooked they're more clumpy and absorbent than when whole. Eversman puts them put to good use in a number of dishes, including a bowl filled with batons of extra-firm tofu bathed in a sauce of butter, shallots, black pepper, and ginger that leaves a lingering, warm finish. In another the rice is blanketed with strips of thick pork belly, shredded brussels sprouts, and a perfectly wobbly "5:10" egg (the menu's first obvious nod to Chang, it refers to the ideal time for soft-boiling an egg).

The kitchen's treatment of spring rolls, pho, and banh mi (some varieties of which aren't available at the market) is respectful enough, but some things go above and beyond reinvention for its own sake. Brined chicken wings are sauced in the style of the homey bitter-caramel braises called kho. Bun nem la lat is an unusually generous combo of grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves and deep-fried spring rolls served on rice noodles. There's a slow burn lurking in the papaya salad topped with shreds of house-made jerky. And trumping all of these is an utterly corrupting op la, the Vietnamese version of bacon and eggs: a Maggi-seasoned tangle of pork belly, Benton's country ham, Chinese sausage, and pork roll with caramelized onions, a pair of fried eggs, and a baguette to sop up the glorious slick of fat and yolk. This belongs in the sort of place that stays open 24-7 and is populated by red-eyed eaters sponging alcohol off their foreheads.

Some forays that show off the kitchen's fine-dining cred make less obvious references to tradition. A plate of grilled sardines arrives minimally dressed with arugula and sesame-lime-shallot dressing. Fat sections of roasted fennel and brussels sprouts are artfully garnished with grapefruit salsa verde, red quinoa salad, and butternut squash puree. Most ambitious of all is a rigorously composed plating of che, a puddinglike sweet normally sold in plastic cups or baggies but here deconstructed as a rectangle of cool, sweet butternut squash and coconut custard on a swipe of sticky rice puree, garnished with taro root, Thai basil, and salty crumbled peanuts.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what else the kitchen can do with the endlessly variable universe of Vietnamese sweets—and pretty much anything else the cooks care to play with. Inventive but still deferential to the elemental pleasures of Vietnamese food, this place completely exceeded my expectations.

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