One Great Plate: Vietnamese Bouillabaisse

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

    If you’re anything like me, you’ve walked past Indochine without ever going inside dozens or even hundreds of times during its 24 years.

    I came close, once, during the holiday blizzard of 1996, but my companion took one look at the menu and grumbled “Too expensive.” I looked at our snow-stained pant cuffs, weathered sweatshirts and runny noses and thought to myself, “And we’re not fabulous enough.”

    Over a decade later, I find myself sitting in Indochine in ripped jeans, a polo shirt and sneakers.While the crowd, myself included, might be not as fabulous as it once was in its table-top dancing glory days, everything else you may have heard about this downtown stalwart is true. The lithe staff is an attractive bunch whose slinking about the palm frond décor gives the restaurant an aura of urban safari; the banquettes are perfect for canoodling with one or more and the impeccable cocktails are designed to help facilitate that, one imagines.The soundtrack is studded with reminders of MTV’s golden age, and the lighting is dim enough that an errant smudge of powder on one’s nose might go unnoticed.

    But those days are long gone, so what has kept this former den of decadence chugging along for almost two and a half decades? The food, silly. And much of it hasn’t changed over the years.

    “We try to update, but our regulars get upset,” says owner-partner Jean-Marc Houmard. After diving into a huge bowl of the restaurant’s Vietnamese Bouillabaisse ($27), I begin to believe there’s more to Indochine than nostalgia.

    A traditional bouillabaisse is a peasant fish stew, thought to have originated when Mediterranean fishermen took the seafood unsuitable for selling and cooked it for themselves, eventually updated for modern tastes by chefs in Marseille. Bouillabaisse is one of those dishes that can get purists in a tizzy, and this version is definitely not for traditional Francophiles.What it lacks in saffron, fennel and monkfish, it makes up for in the spirit of the dish: Using simple ingredients of indigenous origin. In terms of Vietnamese cuisine, that means kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and curry powder— though perhaps in a nod to more delicate French palates, the dish is notably free of any truly fiery spice.You don’t miss the garlicky mayo-smeared toast that would accompany this dish at any port in Provence; coconut milk gives the broth a richness of its own and three huge, sturdy taro chips provide more than enough crunch. And then there’s the seafood: Four different sea creatures—mussels, prawns, calamari and scallops—provide heartiness without heaviness.

    Certain mythologies say the beginnings of bouillabaisse trace back to ancient Rome, when the dish was said to be what Venus fed to her husband Vulcan to distract him while she was off schtupping Mars, a story just hedonistic enough to seem appropriate in the restaurant that earned its name serving the gods and goddesses of Manhattan in the over-thetop NYC decadence in the 1980s. But it is only today’s mere mortals that get to enjoy this spin on a dish that may have once been the food of the gods, as the Vietnamese Bouillabaisse wasn’t on the menu in those bygone days. “It’s been on the menu for about eight years,” says Houmard, with a smile. “We call it one of ‘the newer dishes.’” -- Indochine 430 Lafayette St. (at Astor Pl.), 212-505-5111, []