I once tried to sit down at a sidewalk restaurant in Hanoi that specialized in dog meat. As I haltingly asked for a seat in my horrible mockery of the Vietnamese language, the young woman in charge of the spot stared right through me, probably more than familiar with clumsy, thrill-seeking adventurers—or worse, foreigners eager to pass judgment on something alien to their experience. Whatever she thought I was after, she wanted no part in it.
Somewhere deep inside I was relieved I didn't have to confront the disarticulated, dark, greasy animal parts arrayed behind a harshly lit aquarium display, much less my own entrenched sense of taboo. The point, I consoled myself as I slunk away, is that I tried.
In the same way, I tried to confront and understand the food at Vu Sua, which is the Vietnamese name for the tropical fruit known as the star apple, which translates roughly as "milk of the breast." It's the latest from chef Macku Chan, who's made his name over the years in various well-regarded sushi bars such as Mirai Sushi, Heat, Kaze, and Macku. This time Chan has veered from the family path—and apparently from his brother Kaze and cousin Hari—and opened a nominally French-Vietnamese fine dining room in the soothing, minimal environs of the old Erwin space.
Imagine a black cod fillet, jacketed in light, crispy panko bread crumbs, lovingly and delicately fried until crispy, and light as a feather. Now imagine miring it in a glutinous chocolate-based sauce and weighting it with slices of unseasonal strawberry that have all the flavor of cold, wet tofu. When I ate this dish years ago at Macku I called it a "fish sundae," an unholy union of incompatible ingredients that seems so audacious on paper you have to order it—just to find out if it's loading anything more than two barrels of shock value.
A number of Vu Sua's dishes are duplicated or echoed from Macku, but even the ones that aren't inspired by it manage to contribute to an overall sense of discord. A selection of spring rolls—set upright in a pool of goopy, thick, black-bean-and-soy-based sauce—consists of gluey cylinders stuffed with rice noodles, cucumber, carrots, and bean sprouts, coated in panko, and topped with various bites: an endive canoe of spicy diced octopus, or nuggets of lobster and foie gras. These inharmonious architectures crumble at any attempt to eat them. Go figure how these separate elements are supposed to complement each other—on one visit a despondent chunk of lobster leaped from its aerie and bounced from the table to the floor.
There's a seared-scallop salad that comes with the bivalves similarly perched atop roulades of cucumber packed with dark greens, and it makes just as little sense. Like at Macku, seafood such as this tastes superbly fresh, but it's often spoiled by an excess of saucing and garnish: slabs of white tuna ceviche doused in treacly lychee-yuzu vinaigrette; luscious slices of fatty salmon swimming in pools of mint-and-black-olive-infused oil; a single, fragile, disintegrating dumpling, stuffed with lobster and foie gras and mired in a murky, sweet Asian pear reduction with the consistency of a smoothie.
You can sense the presence of good food in nearly every dish, but it's smothered by a surfeit of overpowering sweet and lugubrious sauces, with hardly a hint of acidity or salt. On the other hand, a deceptively titled "flatbread," suspiciously similar to the Japanese pancake okonomiyaki, is loaded with a confetti of sashimi and a bush of arugula, and streaked with squirts of mayo. It seems like the piscine equivalent of poutine, something you eat only when the amount of alcohol you've ingested permits you not to know any better.
Chan specializes in odd accents in unlikely places. There isn't a plate he won't paint with limp berries or kumquats, smears of pastel-colored sauces, or nests of spun sugar—dishes that look as if they shot through a wormhole from 1993. Imagine two tiny lamb chops perched beside a deep-fried eggplant at the far end of a plate dominated by squiggles of sweet soy glue and a single split cherry tomato, positioned like the rubber nose on the face of a maniacal clown. And then try to sleep at night.
Not surprisingly, the best things on this menu are the most straightforward and traditional. There's a simple bowl of pho for two, with thin slices of beef and a clean, fragrant broth that could stand up to any on Argyle Street. A small, thin, and crispy bean sprout and seafood omelet—a classic Vietnamese banh xeo—is simply seasoned with fish sauce. And a homey bowl of miso-based seafood soup is packed with plump, bouncy mushrooms, shrimp, cabbage, and springy fish cakes. But even with this soup, the kitchen can't resist a pointless flourish—the addition of single quail egg, dramatically plopped tableside into the simmering broth. You're meant to let it cook for a few minutes, which will give you and your tablemate just enough time to arm wrestle for it.
The food at Vu Sua seems like it comes from another time and place, where the permissiveness of fusion created a cuisine that was its very antithesis: incompatible, discordant, frightening. I couldn't understand it, but I tried.