Peacock Vietnamese Restaurant
3415 West End Ave. 463-3005
Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 5-9 p.m. Sun.
Price range: $$
Twenty-three years ago, the best Chinese restaurant in Nashville was called Dynasty; it was on the first floor of the Continental Towers, the apartment building across West End Avenue from the Murphy Road intersection. It had an excellent hot and sour soup, steamed dumplings, lobster with black bean sauce and a terrific eggplant dish. I didn't know very many people in Nashville at the time, and I frequently worked late, so I always placed an order to go and went to pick it up. I got takeout there at least once a week for a year or so, and rarely did I ever see more than one or two tables taken.
Eventually, the lack of a dinner business spelled the demise of Dynasty; I was really sad to see it go, and I don't know that I've found another Chinese restaurant in Nashville as good as Dynasty was. Over the ensuing years, at least half a dozen brave restaurateurs have given this same location a shot. Among them was a Greek restaurant that I was so hopeful about; a fine, French-influenced restaurant; and perhaps most successful, though rather short-lived, Way Out West Cafe. Every one of them failed.
Now Taheerah Rochelle and her husband Hau Nguyen are making an earnest effort with the opening of Peacock, a Vietnamese restaurant. While there are definitely some kinks to be worked out, I am making a personal plea to Nashvillians to give them a chance, but only if time is not of the essence.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that my dining companions were four Nashville chefs and one of the town's most well-educated food/wine experts. Typically, I wouldn't take members of the restaurant industry with me to judge another establishment, certainly not one similar to their own restaurant. But due to their avowed passion for Vietnamese food, they seemed the perfect panel to evaluate Peacock. As it turns out, they were very pleased with the food and, thanks to their frame of reference, more forgiving than the average diner might be. As one said, "I go crazy when I get bad service in a restaurant like mine, where I'm paying a lot of money. But I am much more patient with ethnic restaurants, where it might be just the husband in the back cooking, and the wife or kid in the front of the house. As long as you go in with the understanding that it might take a while, then it's fine."
None of us imagined it would take quite so long as it did; in fact, one chef had to leave to get started on that night's dinner, taking his order of pho with him. That was disappointing.
The only person we ever saw was Rochelle; we assumed there was someone else cooking, and we were right: It was Nguyen. Rochelle greeted us, took our orders, brought our foodone plate at a timeand bussed our table. She worked really hard and couldn't have been nicer. We were just glad for her (and for us) that, with the exception of one group leaving as we arrived and another arriving as we were leaving, we were the only customers there.
Nashville's first and most popular Vietnamese restaurant is indisputably Kien Giang on Charlotte Pike, which is especially beloved among the chef community; one member of our party admits to eating there three times a week. Clean and casual to the extreme, it is also remarkably cheap and accepts cash only. Peacock, thanks in part to its location, is more upscale in decor, though I could swear the furniture is the same as Dynasty'sglass-topped tables and bamboo chairs. Dishes are plastic, though, and linens are paper; obviously, this husband-wife team is operating on a shoestring budget.
The couple met in Florida. He is from Vietnam; she is the daughter of a Korean mother and an African American dad, born in Kentucky and raised in Texas. Family brought them to Nashville, and previously they owned a tiny lunch spot on White Bridge Road first called Delicious, then Viet-My, which translates to Vietnamese-American. My daughter still says the tuna sandwich she got there was the best she's ever had.
The most recent incarnation of the Peacock space had been the QS Market, a small convenience-style store. The Nguyens bought it in December and soon began the conversion from market to restaurant, just recently changing the name. The makeover is actually not yet complete; a small corner of the room still stocks items from cereal to tuna to cold medicine, but Rochelle says they will be phasing out the market entirely.
The menu is much larger than Kien Giang's, though individual items are not significantly more expensive. The restaurant's prudence on the accoutrements does not extend to the food; everyone was most complimentary of the flavors and lauded the inclusion of some items not found in other local Vietnamese restaurants. We were particularly fond of the squid stuffed with a mixture of ground pork and mushrooms, which can be ordered as an appetizer or as an entrée over vermicelli noodles (bun). As the Kien Giang devotee noted, "These are really tight." A higher compliment from this chef could not be hoped for.
A good number of the dishes are served with omong, a stringy water spinach with a slight bite to it.
As noted, the pho went to go, which meant that only one member of our party tasted it, but he has a tongue to be trusted, and his succinct assessment was "really fing good." A bowl of broth brimming with rice noodles, sprouts, herbs and meat (usually beef), pho is the national dish of Vietnam. Any restaurant specializing in Vietnamese cuisine can and should be judged by the quality of its pho, and Peacock passed with flying colors.
Both of the lemongrass dishes we tasted, beef and chicken, boasted clean, distinct flavors; though they weren't cooked as spicy as we requested, they had bit of a kick to them nonetheless. Another table favorite, and a dish I haven't seen in another Nashville restaurant, was the curry-lemongrass catfish served with steamed rice. While I usually find that the bottom feeder is best served by breading and deep-frying, the neutral-tasting fish took well to the intense coating of curry and lemongrass.
Vegetarians will be particularly pleased with their section of the menu, with tofu on nearly every plate. As an avowed tofu-hater, I could not have found myself more surprised to be hogging the grilled eggplant strips topped with lemongrass tofu, but I couldn't get enough of this delectable and supremely healthy dish.
Though all of the chefs pronounced the food really good, with great flavor, balance, portion control and value, service was an issue, at least so far as timing was concerned. As noted, almost every dish was delivered one at a time, and there were waits for napkins, plates, cutlery, water and drinks. By the time the check was delivered, only two of our original seven were still at the table.
The two of us remaining used the wait to catch up with one another and dish about the local restaurant industry, a topic of endless speculation and rumor. When you have that kind of time on your hands, consider spending it at Peacock. Bring some friends, bring a bottle of wine, and before you know it, you'll be passing plates and delighting in Hau Ngyuen's food. And even if you don't walk out until two or so hours later, you'll leave feeling it was time well spent.