Less Is More

Monsoon's small plates, or the key to dining karma.

Once, when I was 10 or so, a friend of my mother’s informed me that not sharing my food would prevent me from ever getting a date. The new assortment of small plates at Monsoon, unveiled less than a month ago by Monsoon co-owner and -chef Sophie Banh, would give this woman joyful palpitations: Not quite entrées but more substantive than hors d’oeuvres, they positively beg to be divvied up.

Nevertheless, my first visit for the purpose of small-plate consumption was a solo flight. (So much for sharing.) I arrived in the middle of the evening rush, which meant fancy young couples and scampering children. I sat by the window and ordered asparagus soup with Dungeness crabmeat ($9), grilled prawns over green mango salad ($7.50), and fiddlehead ferns with oyster mushrooms ($9.50).

If the phrase “asparagus soup” evokes images of a bisquelike substance, put them out of your head. Monsoon’s traditional version, a helpful reminder that pho isn’t Vietnam’s only soup, is a clear, woodsy broth that complements the sweetness of the crab: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. About four prawns, pink as pearls, top the mango salad, which consists of julienned red onion, thin slices of toasted garlic, sproingy strips of egg, and heavenly half-moons of the aforementioned fruit, whose sweetness ties the other, sharper flavors together.

Such a harmonious blend of contrasting textures and tastes came as a complete surprise, yet that predilection for the unexpected is Monsoon’s culinary calling card. I have to admit a certain ambivalence toward fiddleheads; I’d never had them before, and though their okralike consistency was enough to reel me in, I found their bitterness off-putting, so much so that even their rich broth— flavored with oyster sauce, soy sauce, and shallots—couldn’t convert me. But that’s fine—another diner might relish the lively interplay of salty, sweet, and bitter tastes.

That a fairly uninformed palate like mine should be convinced to don its thinking cap reflects Monsoon’s willingness to treat its customers like grown-ups, filling the menu with challenging choices—and some cuddlier ones, too, like a succulent lemongrass tofu ($8.50). During my second visit, the tofu was a point of repose after an exhilarating bout with shrimp meat on sugarcane ($7). The dish is fairly common in Vietnam, but Monsoon’s presentation is so elegant as to seem revelatory: Slightly garlicky shrimp paste is wrapped around finger-length pieces of chewy cane, so that each bite is laced with a burst of pure, unfiltered sweetness.

As dusk began to creep over Capitol Hill, my friend and I lingered on Monsoon’s tiny patio, eating crème caramel ($4.50) and Vietnamese banana cake ($5). (Another perk of small plates, besides sharing: room for dessert.) We watched men sporting neckties and women in summer dresses trot in, and we looked on in “Awww!” as tykes in minuscule jackets and slacks toddled by. There’s no way to prove, of course, that small-plate menus like Monsoon’s lead to a healthy dating life, marriage, and well-behaved children in country-club sportswear. Still, I suspect that my mother’s friend, 15 years ago, hit on something profound.

Monsoon, 615 19th Ave. E., 206-325-2111, CAPITOL HILL Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; dinner 5:30–10 p.m. Tues.-Sun.