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Pho Republique

Refined fusion done right
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  June 4, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars
DON'T POOH-POOH THE PU PU: At Pho Republique, it's retro and good.

Pho Republique | 617.262.0005 | 1415 Washington Street, Boston | Open Sun–Tues, 5:30 pm–Midnight; and Wed–Sat, 5:30 pm–12:30 am | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking (at Sage), $16 | Sidewalk-level access
The first Pho Republique, in Central Square, had a French Colonial Vietnam concept that rubbed a raw nerve of this former protester. The food was also strictly Vietnamese, and it didn’t measure up to real Vietnamese-immigrant restaurants. A move, two chefs, and a concept change later, Pho Republique is now pan Asian-fusion with décor and food that sometimes nod to the Trader Vic/South Pacific school of ’50s nostalgia. Retro done right sits a lot better with me, and the refined fusion dishes here can be remarkable.

Typical of these dishes is the eponymous pho ($13.50 with chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu; $18 with crispy duck; $14.95 combination). The traditional Vietnamese soup is based on a beef stock, though there is a chicken version with a lot of cinnamon. Pho Republique originally opened with an awkward beef-based pho, which they’ve since dropped, and an unconventional chicken-based version, since improved. The latter now has a wonderful balance of lemongrass with hints of anise and cinnamon, and it’s one of the best chicken soups in Boston. It’s close enough in style to the Vietnamese beef pho to work with some of the same mix-ins (bean sprouts, anise-scented Asian basil, Vietnamese hot chili sauce), and even to support the same thin slices of brisket found in the beef version. The traditional rice noodles are available, but we opted for Chinese-style egg noodles, and they were exquisite.

On the retro side, what’s more retro than a pu pu platter ($24.81)? This one tweaks appetizers of all origins. The pair of shumai ($8.50/à la carte) are Japanese-style seafood dumplings, with an additional green soybean at the center of each one. The four spareribs ($12.50/à la carte) look like the Chinese-American kind, but are candied, sweet, and irresistible. Three veggie “gyoza” potstickers ($8.30/à la carte) are deep-fried and fabulous. Hot rangoons ($8.50/à la carte) as a Chinese-American appetizer would be fried in wonton skins; these are done up as spring rolls and are as rich as blintzes. “Crispy sashimi tuna spring rolls” ($12.50/à la carte) mixes several ideas — think: California roll fried as an egg roll — though it falters because the rice isn’t flavored like sushi rice.

We also tried the fried calamari with two sauces ($10.59). The batter was close to tempura, which is a good move, and the platter was plumped up with foamy shrimp chips. The sauces were a Vietnamese fish sauce and a spicy mayonnaise — only in Boston.

Other than the pho, the most impressive entrée was tuna steak ($22.95), seared on the outside and sliced thin. The coating was sesame and something hot and spicy, yet the real thrill was the soy-mustard butter sauce underneath. Sometimes fusion is really great.

Wok-fry cashew chicken ($17.95) turned out to be a rather ordinary Chinese-style stir-fry, though it had some authentic items, such as lotus seeds, tucked among the boneless chicken slices, cashews, and a lot of bell peppers. Moo shu crispy duck wraps ($24) attempted the flavors of Peking duck, with the added thrill that the vegetables — mostly cabbage — were stewed in a light curry. But the duck pieces were fried too crisp and lost their flavor, the wrapper pancakes were too thick as well, and the bean sauce was not as vivid as real hoisin (and would have clashed with the curry if it had been). A side dish of chilled peapods with sesame soy sauce ($6) was just that. Oyster sauce sticks better.

Pho Republique has a variety of exotic rum drinks, a short wine list, and some Asian beers. Tea ($3.50) is served loose-leaf in a real teapot. For dessert we reverted to Asian traditionalism, since there were only two options: mochi ice cream in three flavors ($5) and fried banana dumplings ($8). The latter were somewhat stodgy, almost like plantains. The former is the familiar concoction of fine ice cream encased in sticky, pounded rice that could be used for self-seal auto tires. Having to work through the mochi layer makes one savor the ice cream, especially the vivid green-tea flavor and the above-average chocolate.

The room was one of the first large spaces on what is now a restaurant row on Washington Street. The rough finish, including distressed wood tables, gives a feel of the Third World in colonial times, but the eclectic décor scatters the attention. It’s as if Trader Vic went to Pier 1 and picked out some random things, with some real antiques thrown in. The background sound, which is not obtrusive, left mostly techno impressions. Some of it might be Asian, though it isn’t the folk music or deliberately exotic sounds one hears in immigrant restaurants catering to lo fan.

Service on the early side was quite good (popular food always cheers up a staff). On one night I dined, the eclectic menu made Pho Republique a meeting place for several generations. With its late hours, Pho Republique moves to a drinks-and-snacks crowd over the course of the evening. If you grew up on spareribs and egg rolls, you’re okay here. If your generation was more about pad Thai and sushi, you’re also okay. And great chicken soup is timeless. It all works to give us a brush of the exotic without the political complexities.

Robert Nadeau can be reached

Related: My year in food, 2007 restaurant awards, Oishii Boston, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Asian Food and Cooking, Chinese Food and Cooking, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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