If all goes well, Berlu will reopen Oct. 14 with one of country's most daring Vietnamese tasting menus.
Gone are the minimal French food poems from Vince Nguyen, a quietly exciting talent who began embracing and exploring his Vietnamese roots for the first time during the pandemic. Judging by a menu sneak peek, this is Vietnamese food as only reimagined in the mind of someone whose bathroom is wallpapered with images of his boundary-pushing hero, David Bowie.
Think streets foods meets fine foods and old-school comforts married to more modern, conceptual notions, served in a tiny food chamber on SE Belmont. That includes what is surely the world's first bành bò nướng—a sweet, chewy, honeycomb-textured cake—to be kissed by a hot grill, then toasted until warm and crunchy. Spooned on top: coconut cream and … caviar?
I have two words: Seriously interested.
Like many second-generation kids, Nguyen, who is 35 and grew up in Southern California, says he rejected Vietnamese culture when he was younger. “I felt ashamed of my heritage,” he told me recently. But in one of those “Who am I?” questions that hit people during the shutdown, everything changed. Berlu—one of PoMo's Best New Restaurants in 2019—went on hiatus. Nguyen went to find himself.
He hit up YouTube to learn how to make Vietnamese desserts. That cracked open new family conversations and led to the weekend-only Berlu Bakery—a place to find a special treat, a Vietnamese coffee, or a cake collaboration at a take-out counter set up at the front entrance. (Once the restaurant opens, the bakery will be open on Sundays only).
Meanwhile, he dove into hard-to-find Vietnamese soups sporting his handmade fermented rice noodles, served in take-out home kits.
Then, over the summer, on Friday nights, Nguyen toyed with street foods, opening up new ideas and directions. That meant making classic things he'd never tasted before, like bò lá lốt, a snack of ground beef rolled and grilled in betel leaves. “My parents visited, and they found it hilarious how much they enjoyed it,” he says with a giant grin. “Some people said it was the best they’d ever tasted. I understand things that taste good. If I know the ingredients, I understand what it’s trying to achieve.”
Now comes the most ambitious chapter in this journey: the tasting menus, three nights a week, Thursdays through Saturdays. The space is small, so only 10 guests will be served per seating at tables roughly five feet apart. Staff will be masked and vaccinated, and diners will be asked to present a vax card or recent proof of a recent negative test. Cost is $115 per person, wine pairing $55, plus a 3 percent wellness charge that helps cover full health insurance for employees.
And note: Berlu remains dairy-free and a dedicated gluten-free space.
The experience will kick off with assorted snacks that reinterpret Vietnamese street foods. Berlu’s artful, ethereal rice crackers, for example, will get a dusting of four house powders—scallion, dried local bay shrimp, chile, and fermented pork —inspired by a grilled Vietnamese pizza made at Berlu’s night market.
Next, a trio of plated courses will blend conceptual ideas with seasonal celebrations. The fourth and final savory course, says Nguyen, represents a whole animal (in this case duck), presented through a series of traditional Vietnamese dishes. Aged duck breast gets a sweet/spicy glaze; the leg transforms into chả lụa, a sausage that’s traditionally made with pork; shreds of neck and wing are stuffed into bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls) playfully adorned with pickled roses; and the crisped skin garnishes a radicchio salad with spicy coconut/duck fat dressing, peanut brittle, and herbs.
But the sweet courses might steal the show, including that caviar-topped bành bò nướng. I'm also curious about a coffee-and-shallot terrine dabbed with tart plum jam, herbs, and condiments, served with sweetened black bean tea. Concluding the night: Vietnamese hot chocolate.
Bigger picture? Portland is emerging as one of America's most interesting Vietnamese American food scenes, as young cooks are creating their own narratives. Berlu’s new tasting menus could put a punctuation on that point.
Berlu, 605 SE Belmont St. Reservations at berlupdx.com.