$5,000 and Completely Pho-getable
Top-grade Wagyu beef boiled in a foie gras broth, garnished with white alba truffles and hand-raised bean sprouts over a bed of blue lobster meat noodles. My greatest creation? A list of ingredients that barely fit together? A new dish at a slightly pretentious Asian fusion restaurant? Almost.
Last week at a private charity auction, the House of An restaurant, Crustacean Beverly Hills, debuted their newest dish, a $5,000 bowl of pho made with more culinary buzz ingredients than actual traditional pho ingredients.
Now with the auction finished, their version of the popular Vietnamese noodle soup has become a feature of Crustacean’s permanent menu. It’s sure to taste interesting, maybe even really good. But really, this pho is pho in name alone.
Unlike other food, eating pho is a largely emotional experience. Whether you grew up visiting pho restaurants every weekend with your parents or know it as a drunk or hangover food, there’s more to a bowl of pho than just the noodles and soup.
Rather, much of the flavor and character of the dish comes from the murkiness of the ice water you’re drinking, the scornful glances you get from the staff as you order free drinks at 2 a.m., or the ceremony involved in wiping down the spoons and chopsticks before eating, because you can’t just trust the restaurant.
I’m probably complaining about nothing, but it just doesn’t feel right if I don’t feel obligated to order water that’s been boiled or have a Sriracha bottle that’s obviously been refilled more than once.
Even disregarding the emotional aspect, the soup is barely recognizable for what it’s trying to be. While the Wagyu beef and bean sprouts belong in the dish in a ridiculously decadent sort of way, the foie gras broth and lobster meat models are drastic takes on two core ingredients. While most of the essence of the broth is derived from the spices used, changing the protein base also changes a lot of the flavor.
Vegetarian pho, while not my first choice, is still good, but also very obviously vegetarian. The same can be said for a foie gras broth. The delicate taste of foie gras can’t be a very good replacement for the sturdy flavors of stewed beef bones and ox tail.
The noodles are also a cringe-worthy change. While making them out of lobster meat is a gastronomic wonder, the change in both texture and flavor would be jarring and unwelcome. Noodles are meant to give a sturdy base to soak up flavor, not as a delicate stand-alone.
Then there’s the cost. Taking what is basically Vietnamese peasant food and putting it through a pricey gourmet transformation is a little ridiculous. Granted, the best bowl of pho I’ve ever had technically cost me nearly $3,000, sure.
But that’s because it was in Vietnam at a little roadside stand with dozens of motor bikes roaring past as I ate. I wasn’t quite sure where they had gotten the water for the soup. There was a lot of dust being kicked up behind me, but it was delicious nonetheless, in a different way.
The House of An family of restaurants are very good and I’m sure they’ve done a good job. They started the Asian fusion cuisine movement in the late ’90s and are still the darlings of critics and Yelp reviewers alike.
The $5,000 price tag includes a donation to the Children’s Hospital of LA. But, when you mess with emotional food this heavily, it feels a little disingenuous.
The bowl of pho is obviously fairly gimmicky. The ingredient list sounds as if someone literally attempted to cram as many Beverly Hills ingredients into one dish as possible without concern for flavor.
While I’m sure the capable chefs of the House of An were able to craft something tasty, I believe that they failed at something more important. They forgot the reason people go to pho places late at night or how the first sip of soup tastes after a long night out.
People don’t eat pho because tendon and tripe are exotic and expensive. They aren’t turned off because a restaurant isn’t exactly super clean. Rather, eating pho is about the experience and that’s not something you can replicate.