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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Monsoon still cooks up a delicious storm

Special to The Seattle Times

Monsoon 2.5 stars


615 19th Ave. E.,

Seattle; 206-325-2111; www.monsoonseattle.com

Vietnamese

$$ /$$$

Reservations: accepted.

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. daily; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices: Dinner $7.50-$24; brunch $4-$15.

Drinks: The impressive international wine list exceeds 200 bottles chosen with an eye to their affinity for Asian flavors. Aficionados should ask to see the "reserve" list.

Parking: on street.

Sound: Very noisy when crowded.

Who should go: If you haven't been in years, it's time to revisit, especially for brunch.

Beer and wine only / credit cards: V, MC / no obstacles to access / patio dining.

When Monsoon took Seattle by storm seven years ago, most critics were blown away by the food, with its innovative riffs on traditional Vietnamese fare.

Crowds followed.

Though it's possible now to show up without a reservation, even on a weekend night, and be seated pretty quickly, calling ahead is still a good idea. Monsoon's popularity hasn't waned, and the reason why may be that the food is still capable of taking your breath away.

Study the single-page menu, which gets a weekly tweak, and its logic soon emerges: Soups and salads are grouped at the top, followed by small bites, then seafood, meats, vegetables, rice and noodles and finally desserts. The diversity of ingredients piques your interest, making it tough to narrow your choices — so don't. Everything lends itself to sharing; most people order a variety of things and do just that.

The most memorable plates play with layers of tastes, textures and even temperatures. A salad of crunchy, sweet Asian pear, shredded basil-flecked green papaya and pistachios set over Boston lettuce splashed with soy sauce vinaigrette is simple, yet spectacular.

Contrast that with the delicious complexity of Dungeness crab and shrimp rolls, fat with seafood and cellophane noodles, stuffed into a hot, crackling shell. Wrap one in a lettuce leaf, tuck in some basil, spoon on some chili-stoked fish sauce and prepare to swoon.

Then revel in the alchemy that occurs when catfish, coconut juice, onion and chili peppers simmer long in a clay pot. When it arrives at the table you find the fish is so tender it nearly melts and the fiery sauce has bubbled down to something akin to syrup.

Not everything at Monsoon reaches that pinnacle, but many dishes come close. A quartet of grilled Monterey squid lined up like mini-zeppelins tastes more like landlubbers than sea creatures: their elongated bodies are plumped with savory tidbits of duck and dried shitake; their charred tentacles are tacked on like tails.

A bold citrus, salt and pepper sauce enhances "cognac luc lac," cubed filet mignon moistened with oxtail stock. The accumulated juices serve as a dressing for butter lettuce and slices of Roma tomatoes that share the plate.

Even vegetables dazzle. Garlic and fried shallots play among stir-fried pea vines; chili sauce ignites green beans and butternut squash.

Pickled mustard greens check the cloying richness of unabashedly fatty pork belly. Though fragrant with five-spice, the meat might be more supple with longer braising. And cauliflower and chive blossoms hold more allure than the tough and chewy tiger prawns that join them in a musky, intense dried scallop sauce.

The minimalist décor rivets attention to the open kitchen, where line cooks juggle skillets, pots and woks, led by Sophie Banh, who co-owns Monsoon with her brother, Eric, and their sister, Yen.

Park yourself at the counter to fully appreciate the show. There you can also watch the staff plate numerous coconut crème caramels (the must-have dessert) and meter out wines by the glass — riesling, chenin blanc, gruner veltliner, rose and pinot noir are among the choices available from the impressive international list.

Sitting at the counter also ensures you will be within radar range of servers who all too often forget about you once they've taken your order.

The neglect isn't deliberate; this hard-working staff hustles, but when the restaurant is slammed, there just aren't enough of them. In the rush niceties get overlooked and peripheral vision shuts down. An order gets forgotten or goes astray. Several dishes arrive at once or long stretches occur with nothing to eat. Glasses too often sit empty.

At a less crowded weekend brunch with the same number of staff on the floor, service was far more relaxed and attentive. At brunch you can delve into creamy eggs "en coquette" coddled in a ramekin with a dab of crème fraiche and a sprinkle of fresh herbs or graze on some of the best dim sum in town.

Look for slippery soft shrimp dumplings and crisp, chive-studded shrimp wontons; pork-studded sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves and pungent pork shu mai; and pan-fried daikon cakes dabbed with a bit of chilli pepper sauce, creamy in the middle, golden brown on the edges and in a puddle of fish sauce.

The server took care to explain which dipping sauce was for which and how to wrap a lettuce leaf around bites of banh xeo, the brittle Vietnamese rice milk crepe enveloping shrimp, pork and vegetables.

When tea arrived (green, oolong, black or herbal are all brewed from loose leaves by the pot), the server let us know how long it should steep. If only there were more of that kind of coddling in the storm that can overtake Monsoon at the dinner hour.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Sample menu

Dungeness crab and shrimp rolls $8.50

Spicy green beans with butternut squash $8.50

Catfish claypot $15

Cognac luc lac filet mignon $18

Tiger prawns, cauliflower and chive flowers in scallop sauce $20

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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