It’s been a while since anybody in this town attempted upscale, contemporary Vietnamese food. For that, you can blame Argyle street. When people travel to that strip to eat pho and banh mi and catfish in a clay pot, they’re not doing so despite the casual (and occasionally gritty) atmosphere, but because of it. The prices and the BYOB policies don’t hurt, either.
It’s this way with a lot of ethnic food, really. Put all the Mazas, Red Lights and Arun’s of the city together and they’d still pale against the number of upscale Italian and American spots. Is the dearth of high-end Vietnamese a result of a reluctant public? Or is it rarely attempted because it’s hard to achieve?
Sawtooth seemed poised to answer these questions, but in reality it will do no such thing. No information about upscale, contemporary Vietnamese food can be gleaned from a meal here, because this food is only mildly upscale and rarely contemporary. Sometimes it barely tastes Vietnamese.
The menu suggests as much: It’s all pork rolls and lotus root salads—stuff you can get at any traditional Vietnamese spot. The price of these dishes suggests there’s something the menu isn’t telling us—that something will be different about this dish, a twist to match it to the price. Or, for that matter, to match the setting, which was kept strikingly similar to Saltaus’s airy, modern, cocktail-ready vibe. (Those cocktails, by the way, veer toward sweet but are pleasant and balanced.) But when the dishes arrive they look exactly like their Argyle Street brethren. The only difference? At Sawtooth, there’s less flavor. The sharp bite of lime countered by sweet shrimp, a rich pho broth offset by punchy basil—at Sawtooth these flavors are tamed. My sense is that this is the restaurant’s attempt at making the food “contemporary”—to make the food more subtle, more palatable to the typical West, West Loop clientele. Or perhaps it’s unintentional. Either way, it renders classic dishes from a vibrant cuisine into food that is inoffensive but lifeless. Charbroiled pork rolls exhibited flavors that were neither remarkable nor craveable. The banh xeo—a Vietnamese-style crêpe stuffed with shrimp—had hardly any flavor at all until I wrapped it in lettuce with some basil and lime juice. The small bowl of pho was pleasant enough, and the tiny roasted quails stuffed with mushrooms had a skin that crackled when you bit into it. But even these cried out for more seasoning—a little heat, some sweetness, more herbs. To that end perhaps the best dish on the menu is the salted prawns. It’s a dramatic thing to have come out to the table—two rows of crunchy crustaceans lined up in a hollowed-out pineapple. The prawns are topped with piles of salty, crunchy breading. It’s a bit overwhelming, all that salt. But it’s also invigorating to get that bracing rush of flavor, followed by the sweet prawn meat. No knife is provided to cut away chunks of pineapple, unfortunately, but I made do by kind of scraping some of the flesh away and rubbing the prawns in the juices before taking a bite. It was a bit of work, but the result was a well-cooked, bold and balanced dish. So it was worth it.
By David Tamarkin