In the rapidly diversifying suburbs, Lamís stands out for the quality of its core Vietnamese offerings, as well as for its smattering of dishes from Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Malaysian cuisines, and a little mild fusion. Itís hard to do so much so well. Itís harder still in a rather large restaurant, and at modest prices. But Lamís accomplishes a lot in a low-key style. Itís also an attractive dining room, almost to suburban-Thai-restaurant standards. The wall art ranges from folk and tourist crafts to fine antiques, and each table is topped with linen under glass, and then again with paper place mats.
No Vietnamese menu is complete without the national beef-noodle soup, pho ($6.75). Lamís has only one permutation of beef broth, but it is excellent, with a subtly spiced anise stock. The options for pho fillings can be daunting, but here theyíve been simplified to two: excellent lean-beef meatballs, and thin slices of cooked beef round. Mixed in are a lot of Asian basil, a little cilantro, scallions and shallots, and plenty of noodles and bean sprouts. This eliminates the need for the little platter of bean sprouts and herbs that one gets in Chinatown and Dorchester. Lamís does send out the usual caddy of hot sauces, but my bowl needed no additional tuning, and most people will make a meal of it.
More conventional parties will want to start with something like Vietnamese spring rolls ($6.25), egg-roll skins wrapped tightly around a whole shrimp, noodles, and vegetables to make five ultra-crunchy fried objects. If the crunch doesnít convince you of this kitchenís Pan-Asian credentials, the dipping sauces of sweet chili sauce (like Thai " squid sauce " ) and a hottish pico de gallo of carrots and cucumbers certainly will.
Steamed Saigon dumplings ($5.25) are six soft raviolis topped with sesame seeds, a little stodgy at first bite, but then a lively chicken-onion filling and a gingery soy dip take over. Larb lao ($7.25) is a spicy taste of Laos, with an appropriate two-chili-silhouette rating for hotness. The platter features steak in small dice, with a granular seasoning of onion, cilantro, galangal (think mustard-ginger), fish sauce, and cilantro ó each lighting up in the mouth like a series of distant fireworks. The menu doesnít mention what becomes obvious the minute we try it: that this dish is intended to be eaten wrapped in the underlying lettuce leaves. With the lettuce-leaf buffer, the spice is only mildly stimulating, and the aromatics seem amplified, as when wine is sipped from a larger glass. Our only unimpressive appetizer ó and it wasnít at all bad ó was grilled eggplant ($7.50), which was topped with smaller shrimp and less spice than we expected.
When selecting entrées, donít miss the side order " brown rice " ($1.50), which is actually exotic Thai black rice, a short-grain rice with a wonderful purple-black coloring and unusual flavor. It stands up even to hunglay chicken ($9.50, also served with beef), a Burmese curry that fires up your mouth at a solid two-chili level, opening up the sinuses to the aroma of Asian basil and lemongrass. This curry also makes the most of potatoes and green beans, a remarkably American-looking platter for such a spicy dish.
Fusion dishes at Lamís have lots of vegetables, like those at Jaeís, but with a lighter, more Vietnamese or Cantonese hand on the sauces. Oriental salmon ($13.75) is another winner, although well short of its two-chili rating. The sauce is really a sweet-sour tamarind sauce. The dish takes off because the salmon is not even a little overdone, and because of the variety of mushrooms: fresh field mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and fresh shiitake, along with carrots and snow peas. Lamís garden ($9) is also fusion food, a vegetarian selection that Buddhists in Southeast Asia would eat with a rich coconut curry. Here the snow peas, carrots, potatoes, corn, and spinach are served with " Lamís special peanut sauce " ó essentially a thinned and sweeter version of the Thai peanut dip served with satay. But this turns out to be a wonderful sauce with a lot of steamed vegetables, and vegetarians will not feel deprived, even at a table of carnivores. The only weak entrée we had was lemon halibut ($13.75), and that was mostly because the fish, in thin steaks, was badly overcooked. With that corrected, it will be a lavish platter with snow peas, broccoli, fresh tomato, red bell pepper, and zucchini.
Lamís has the usual trio of Asian ice creams ($2.50) and an outstanding version of fried bananas ($2.50). These are wrapped in egg-roll skin and fried crisp, with soft fillings. Eight little bundles come out on an edible platter of rice-foam tortilla, with a drizzle of honey and two fresh strawberries. Any upscale bistro would be proud to serve this dessert at three times the price.
Service at Lamís was quick and pleasant on both a crowded Sunday night and a quiet weekday. I think the menu could be more explanatory. This would include advanced cultural information like suggesting that larb lao be wrapped in the lettuce leaves, but also hints for the novice, such as that " Noodle Pad Cha " is a lot like pad Thai. The menu could also have dishes grouped in more suggestive ways; at present, 25 dishes are listed as " Lamís Specialties. " Thatís not likely, and the extensive list is daunting. Of course, some fans may enjoy the hunt for personal favorites from a long menu where nothing seems to lead you much astray.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com