The second restaurant for Thuy Le fills a real void, bringing a cuisine that is nearly absent among downtown St. Petersburg's several dozen restaurants. And the cuisine fits the time and place, ably catering to workers at lunchtime, as well as partiers by night, with a menu that is fresh, affordable and quick.
First, a little tough love. Despite Le's experience running her Thuy (pronounced twee) Café on 34th Street N, this place is brand new and still sopping behind the ears when it comes to service. The restaurant will work it out, but for now, prepare for some strange lags and occasional server panics. One server has been seen running at full tilt between the sidewalk tables and the dining room.
Fashioned in a space once occupied by a gritty pool hall, La V manages to seem both modern chic and also homespun, in addition to a little whimsical (note the pendant lamps draped with white feathers like a flock of illuminated mid-flap wings). When it gets really cranking in there, lots of hard surfaces and a volume ceiling make noise an issue, but otherwise the decor is as delightful as Le herself.
Le could give lessons to other aspiring restaurateurs in how to make guests feel special, how to exude warmth and how to explain food that might be a little exotic for some. First off, she's got 60 smoothies and boba teas (those teas with the fat straws and lurking balls of tapioca at the bottom), in flavors ranging from durian to fresh avocado. She'll guide newbies through the liquid flavors as well as the floating-at-the-bottom options (fruit jellies, tapioca beads, coffee jellies or even a protein shot) — maybe a watermelon with strawberry jellies or a classic boba milk tea.
The V menu itself is a little tricky, a single sheet of paper in an octa-fold that makes for some impromptu origami deconstruction. Diners keep flipping back and forth: Do I want a vermicelli bowl topped with lemongrass chicken, or maybe the Da Nang-style noodle soup with its shrimpy/fish saucy broth? The menu format works as a flier but is less effective at the table as a menu.
But no matter because the food itself is wonderful. There are really four choices at V: noodles, soups, rice dishes or sandwiches. The last is the acme of French-Vietnamese collaboration, a crusty baguette packed with pickled carrot and daikon, fresh herbs, jalapeno rounds and a choice of protein. The La V specialty ($4.40) is a synergy of grilled pork, chewy pork skin, a salty ham they call jambon and a spongy, pate-like head cheese. Now add in all the spicy, herbal, tangy flavors I listed above and it's a serious sandwich.
If the words "head cheese" give you the heebies, the lemongrass chicken or sesame beef (both $5.40) are great centerpieces to a banh mi, also offered as vermicelli bowl ($7.40-$9.40) toppers, a generous bowl of noodles sporting a fringe of mixed herbs, crisp bean sprouts, lettuce, cuke, more pickled daikon and radish and a little bowl of sweet/lime fish sauce dressing. Most of this same lineup of flavors appears again aboard a generous bowl of pho ($7.40-$9.40), the classic one hearty with a mix of thin-sliced steak, flank, tripe, soft tendon and little meatballs. Sounds meaty, eh? Really, the soft rice noodles and the crowd of veggies, not to mention a big squirt of Sriracha, are the stars of the show. As with so many classic Vietnamese dishes, the meats are the backdrop against which the bright high notes strut their stuff.
A short list of La V specialties provides a little adventure, such as the aforementioned Da Nang soup ($8.40) a deep brick-colored broth that is the essence of shrimp shell with a heady whiff of fish sauce, along with rice noodles, bits of pork and hard-boiled egg. Flavorful but not spicy, it's extra good with a dab of the hot sauce that Le will bring over with a raised eyebrow of warning. It's that hot. Another favorite was the lemongrass chicken salad ($7.40), a handful of spunky pickled kimchi lending drama to the assemblage of lettuce, herbs, cuke and sweet, tender grilled chicken.
Le has paired her short menu with a thoughtful lineup of beers and wines that marry suavely with the lively flavors of the food. Still, a cantaloupe or fresh green bean (really) boba tea might be the most elegant pairing and certainly something Central Avenue had been without before La V took up residence early in August.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.