"You are new here!" he beamed.
He was right, of course. Our host/owner Xuan "Suni" Nguyen greeted us immediately when we entered his dining room, and his regular diners were smiling at a routine they must have witnessed dozens of times.
Pasteur Vietnamese Restaurant is a terrific little find of a place, at 2037 16th Street in Moline. My wife and I shoehorned an hour for dinner between a hectic afternoon and an evening junior-high-band concert. Neither of us had been to Pasteur before, but after our experience that night, we have promised ourselves to return soon, as the place has much to recommend it.
A plain, red-brick storefront with a tasteful maroon awning hints at the simple elegance of its dining room. Pleated, fan-shaped linen napkins mark places on butcher paper over white tablecloths with a crisp, starched look I've always appreciated, and tasteful Asian art hangs on walls the color of café au lait.
Suni continued to chat with us as we took our seats. He told us he had been in business there for more than 20 years. He emphasized that the meal we were about to eat was Vietnamese cuisine - not to be confused with Chinese food. He praised his wife's cooking, and the freshness of her ingredients. And when another group of diners he knew by name entered, he left us to our menus.
Pasteur's entrées include dishes of beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, or tofu in a variety of sauces. Medleys of vegetables, spices, and, on occasion, a choice of peanuts, cashews, or almonds complete a list of main courses that would take a regular months of weekly visits to sample. While rice, noodles, and all of the above seem to characterize both Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines, methods of preparation and other ingredients distinguish them.
Looking over the menu, I noticed dishes prepared with tamarind, basil, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, and even curry. Vegetables are steamed, and meats are braised. Almost nothing is stir-fried, and the ramekin of soy sauce served with our dinners seemed an afterthought. Pho (pronounced "fuh") is offered. This is a traditional Vietnamese dish of vermicelli (rice noodles) layered with thin strips of beef in a light broth, seasoned with basil and lime.
We started with fried wontons and potstickers with a pork stuffing ground to the consistency of pÃƒÂ¢té. Our appetizers were dressed with leaves of cilantro, served with dishes of peanut sauce garnished with chopped peanuts, and dashed with a hot-red-pepper purée. Contrasting tastes and textures are hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking, and pairing the slightly sweet peanut sauce with the pungent green taste of cilantro and the hot sriracha, and combining the crunch of the nuts and the wonton with the savory soft pÃƒÂ¢té, were delicious introductions to this philosophy of dining.
I followed these with hot-and-sour soup with shrimp, and this was extraordinary. Celery, carrots, tomato, red pepper, and pineapple were diced recently enough that I could almost see the blade of the knife that made the cuts. Bamboo shoots and twin plump shrimp were added and simmered just long enough in a clear, flavorful broth the color of the blush on a new peach. All at once it embraced the light citrus of tamarind, the bright tartness of the pineapple, and the gentle heat from the red pepper. This is truly a wonderful first (or second) course, and should not be missed.
We shared Tan An Beef and Indo Chicken entrées for dinner. I have to admit that these dishes looked similar to most of the Chinese food I have eaten; thin strips of beef and chicken were presented in sauces with vegetables to be spooned over servings of rice. Then I noticed the fine fragrance of our meals, as the steam from our plates rose to our faces - onion and peanut from the beef, ginger and pineapple from the chicken. Like the lovely aromas, the flavors were wonderfully, almost explosively present in both selections, and the vegetables were again cutting-board fresh, and cooked to tender-crisp perfection. Suni stopped by to check on us, and we praised his wife's efforts. "No MSG here. In anything," he assured us as he left to greet another table of regulars. "This is good Vietnamese food."
While I sipped a cup of jasmine tea after dinner, I looked over Pasteur's wine list. House Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and White Zinfandel are offered. Tsingtao and San Miguel are the Asian beers available, along with their domestic counterparts and other spirits. We declined the choice of Pasteur Cake or mangoes for dessert.
Prices at Pasteur restaurant average $4 for appetizers, and $11 for dinner. It is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
My wife and I enjoyed our evening there, and we look forward to returning soon; there is just too much more menu left to sample, not to mention another serving of the hot-and-sour soup!
Plus, I am curious if Suni Nguyen will be keeping count: "Welcome back! This is your second time here, yes?"
Chris DeWilde spent more than 25 years working for restaurants in and around the Quad Cities, from busboy to management.