INDOCHINE, THE COLORFUL restaurant recently opened in the Gaslight Plaza, embraces the venerable cooking traditions of East and West. Although spawned from the troubled history of former French Indochina (present-day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), the cuisine presents some fascinating dining prospects.
Occupying the cavernous building formerly home to Gordo's, the new tenants have tried to create intimacy by incorporating bold color schemes, Oriental accents, an outdoor patio and a separate bar room. However, with the inordinate amount of square footage, the space still feels immense.
The exterior of the building is strikingly handsome. Vibrant shades of teal, rust and deep violet mingle beneath a shingled pagoda-style roof. The facade's charms are more visible at night, thanks to the flamingo-pink illumination of the restaurant's moniker. Inside, an authentic lacquered rickshaw, rumored to have come straight from the streets of Saigon, graces the entryway. Disappointingly, it does not convey diners to the table.
Perusing the menu is a delight. Nothing is quite what's expected. The offerings are not distinctively Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or French, and totally unlike any continental-style selection. Indochine deserves congratulation for forming a menu that is distinctly its own. You're not likely to find this combination replicated anywhere else in town.
With its singular take on cuisine, Indochine becomes the perfect spot to dine when your party can't agree on a restaurant. Dishes range from pad Thai to sautéed scallops with caramelized onions to seafood vermicelli to filet mignon roulade, making it possible to cover extensive culinary ground in one sitting. Indochine's offerings are not exceptionally numerous, but they definitely have breadth and style.
We began the evening with two appetizers, clams and green tip mussels in mirin wine ($5.95), and the imperial vegetable rolls ($5.95). A basket of warm bread and a small bowl of butter accompanied the orders.
Although simmered in an absolutely luscious broth tinged with sweet rice wine, fresh ginger and lemongrass, the clams and mussels disappoint. The mussels are big and meaty (albeit with a detectable fishy taste), but the minuscule clams could easily escape notice. After detaching the meat from its tendon-like mooring, there's barely a fingertip of clam to nibble on, and the tidbits are invariably tough and gritty.
We fared much better with the vegetable rolls, wrapped in crispy, feathery light phyllo dough instead of the typical egg batter dough. The shredded vegetables inside the neat envelope -- carrots, onion, asparagus and mushrooms -- are crunchy-tender and full of flavor. The accompanying sweet and sour sauce, which is delightfully more soy than syrup, enhances the rolls perfectly.
The day's soup, an exotic-sounding curried cream of chicken with coconut ($2.75), proved rather mundane. The creamy coconut and sweet curry contribute only muted flavor, and ungainly bamboo shoots far outnumber the bits of chicken. We might have done better with soups from the regular menu, either a hearty wonton or an Asian pineapple sour shrimp selection.
The menu divides the entrees between meat and poultry, vegetarian, salads, pasta and fresh seafood offerings.
The grilled lemongrass pork loin chops ($9.95), thin slices of meat seared expertly and served barely pink medium, are a triumph. (For those who fear incipient trichinosis lingering in undercooked pork, the industry analysts currently reassure us that this is no longer a public threat. Therefore, restaurants these days tend to cook just until pink. If this is a problem, be sure to mention it to your server when ordering pork dishes).
A liberal amount of peanut satay gravy tops the tender grilled chops, which are marinated in a blend of soy-ginger sauce, garlic sugar and lemongrass. The combination is exceptionally delicious.
My companion opted for the vegetable sachet, a packet made of thin, crispy sheets of baked tofu filled with a melange of vegetables. Though gorgeous, the sachet lacks pizzazz. The oven-roasted carrots, onions, peppers, mushrooms and asparagus, lightly seasoned with curry, essentially impart only their own distinct flavors. While this might satisfy vegetarian purists, my companion found the dish uninspiring. A piquant tamarind, apple and ginger chutney slightly awakens the flavors, but the portion is too small to rescue the dish.
For a sweet end to the meal, we examined the dessert tray, which offered a New York-style cheesecake, chocolate cake and almond tofu with litchi fruit. I chose the latter, compelled by the chance to sample tofu in dessert form.
A crème anglaise cream envelopes cubes of soft bean curd, along with what looks like giant peeled grapes. The litchi doesn't do much for the dish (being remarkably flavorless), but the tofu custard, akin to protein-packed almendrado, is quite good.
For lunch Indochine offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $5.95 a person (the à la carte menu is not available until 5 p.m.). The buffet presents an amazing abundance of choices. Of three elongated stations, the first contains soups and a smorgasbord of fruits and salads, while the other two brim over with roughly 20 dishes. Some of these are appetizers (egg rolls, chicken in foil, fried wontons), but most are bona fide entrees, including, on the day we visited, orange chicken, cashew chicken, Mongolian beef, beef and broccoli, egg foo yong, lo mein, vegetable stir-fry, fried rice, pork meatballs in sweet sticky rice, sesame chicken, fried chicken and much more. Every dish sampled was fresh and tasty.
The service is the only glitch at Indochine. It's not inattentive, just unpracticed. Timing is frequently off, and servers tend to hover, practically fluttering about in an attempt to anticipate your every need. Conversely, at lunch, our server completely disappeared, necessitating a trip to the cashier without the bill and a small wait while one was put together.
Small misgivings aside, Indochine is a welcome addition to Tucson's growing list of international dining options. Culinary and cultural collaborations are always a bit risky, but so far, this fledgling restaurant has mastered the challenges admirably.
Indochine. 6490 E. Broadway (in the Gaslight Plaza). 290-6566. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu items: $2.75-$32.00.