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Thursday, April 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurants

Monsoon Blows You Away -- Sensational Vietnamese Food Will Broaden Taste-Bud Horizons

Seattle Times Restaurant Reviewer

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# # # Monsoon, 615 19th Ave. E., Seattle ($$) Reservations: 206-325-2111 Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Prices: Lunch: (starters) $3.50-$5, (entrees) $5.50-$9.50; dinner (starters) $4-$9, (entrees) $8-$16; brunch: $6-$8.50 Beer and wine Credit Cards: MC, V (no checks) Wheelchair access No smoking Parking: Small lot, south of building, off E. Mercer -------------------------------

Monsoon did not take me by storm. But it did blow me away. I loved the compelling aromas, intriguing menu and the simplicity in design of this sensational Vietnamese restaurant.

If you know nothing about Vietnamese food, or if your knowledge of it is confined to pho houses and bahn mi shops, Monsoon offers an opportunity for horizon-broadening in a stylish Capitol Hill setting.

Like its neighbor, the Kingfish Cafe, this is a family business operated by a trio of siblings. Here Saigon natives Sophie, Eric and Yen Banh have taken their collective savvy and parlayed it into a restaurant certain to do well in a space where other ventures have come and gone.

Yen - an attentive beauty with a broad and oft-used smile - runs the small, wood-accented dining room. Sophie, the oldest of six siblings, previously cooked at ObaChine and Roy's Seattle and brings her love for Vietnam's culinary traditions to the mix. Her gleaming stainless steel kitchen, fronted by a four-stool counter, is shared with brother Eric, whose food focus is as contemporary as his spiky haircut.

The wine list is Eric's domain, and he's ably crafted a short list featuring (among others), a number of varietals (gerwurztraminer, Riesling auslese) born to complement a menu that relies on Vietnamese tradition but never shies from Northwest innovation.

Beautiful presentations

This is gorgeous food. Fresh halibut, steamed with crunchy lily buds and shiitake mushrooms, arrives on a frond of banana leaf. A perfect fillet of fish, it offers clear, fresh flavor: halibut in all its glory. Salmon gets its lightly musky note not from the banana-leaf in which it's baked (it imparts no flavor), but from green tea leaves, which may be eaten (oh, do) or scraped off (if you must). Moist yet flaky, the fish may be dunked in a soy-accented dipping sauce refreshed with lemon juice and served alongside rice noodles.

Entree portions are not especially generous - if your measuring stick is based on local Southeast Asian restaurant standards. And that makes prices seem somewhat expensive (particularly for seafood, which ranges from $14-$16 at dinner). But smaller portions leave room to sample an "extra" vegetarian entree ($8), or a starter such as the exotic la lot beef. At lunch, much of the evening menu is replicated - and quite modestly priced.

A tureen of "Traditional Sweet and Sour Soup" is beautifully presented, its fragrant broth sweetened with pineapple, punctuated with garlic and made even more interesting with the addition of bac ha - a spongy root vegetable that crunches when you eat it.

Soupy sensation

Though the seasonal menu changes monthly, I'd beg to keep the swoony rendition of that Malaysian standard, laksa, from ever disappearing. This soupy sensation (simply referred to here as "spicy lemongrass curry vermicelli"), is served with seafood, grilled chicken, or tofu and mushrooms. It offers noodles in a spicy, coconut milk-enhanced curry dancing with Asian vegetables.

I'm now a card-carrying tofu fan, converted since I've tasted Monsoon's crispy tofu with onions and mushrooms - pillows of bean curd flecked with bits of spicy, citron-scented lemongrass. The tofu is soft inside, crisp outside, and picks up the sweet oniony flavor of its secondary component. Order the outstanding tofu spinach salad (topped with more of that crispy tofu) and you'll play hide-and-seek with crinkly baby spinach leaves, finding bites of pickled ginger and the delightful marinated baby leeks that garnish so many dishes here.

Ten-spice beef - flank steak sauteed with onions, whispering of hoisin, and treated with tender care - is undeniably delicious. As is the lemongrass-kissed, mesquite-grilled pork tenderloin (good over rice but better-still when bedded down on baguette, as it is at lunch and weekend brunch). Do not think twice about ordering anything with curry, whether its the asparagus and tiger prawn curry with yam (plenty of shrimp there), or the wok-fried lemongrass chicken (when I die, embalm me with that sauce, please).

Dessert options are few, and include a smooth, sensual coconut creme caramel. But there's only one way to end a meal at Monsoon: with a pot of chrysanthemum tea. With a ceramic cup of this mellow brew warming your hands, you're holding liquid calm that will brace you for any oncoming storm. ------------------------------- Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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