Chè means “sweet soup” in Vietnamese; it is a vast category encompassing usually savory foods like beans, rice, and grains, tied together with coconut milk. At Soall Vietnamese Bistro in Marblehead, chè turns up on the dessert menu—a miracle of tastes and textures in the competent hands of executive chef Rachel Miller, who was hired last fall to elevate the menu and service at the popular restaurant.
Sa Nguyen, who owns the restaurant with longtime friend Mia Lunt, says the Soall chè, which blends everything from Callebaut dark chocolate crisp pearls and adzuki beans to candied hibiscus petals and diced mango, perfectly encapsulates the restaurant’s new direction, evoking the flavors and textures of the Vietnamese original while elevating it and making it more approachable for American palates. “That’s Rachel’s magic,” Nguyen says. “She is able to put so many different flavors together and keep it light. Every bite is delicious.”
Shaking beef dish
The task of taking Soall from a casual neighborhood joint heavy on takeout to a creative destination restaurant with a vibrant interpretation of Vietnamese flavors is a dream job for Miller—and is also incredibly challenging. “I wanted the hardest job I could find in the best possible way,” says Miller, whose fine-dining pedigree includes Jason Bond’s Bondir locations and Ken Oringer’s much-missed Clio in Boston.
Bringing the precision and discipline of a top restaurant into Soall’s admittedly homespun vibe is tricky. “It’s a merger of cultures on a lot of levels,” Miller says, noting that she has learned to expedite (ensure that all the stations in the kitchen are working together to get dishes out at the same time) in Vietnamese, working with a mix of longtime staffers and new hires. “We are here to achieve a higher standard.”
The New England seafood pho
Nguyen is the first to admit that she didn’t have a lot of experience running a restaurant kitchen when she opened five years ago, and that became more important when the restaurant expanded about a year ago, doubling in size. The original menu was based on the owners’ mothers’ recipes, and the classic pho remains unchanged. The broth simmers overnight and Nguyen comes in every morning to flavor it.
However, much of the new menu, which debuted early this year, was developed by Miller, much to the delight—and sometimes disappointment—of regulars, who miss everything from the old bowls (although, in fact, the serving size is the same) to the old menus (there are now more offerings, but shorter descriptions). Miller has changed over much of their sourcing to organic and local suppliers, and is working to marry Vietnamese flavors and techniques with proteins familiar on the North Shore.
The ginger scallion lobster is a good example. While the name is a familiar Asian restaurant staple, Soall’s version is completely different, taking tender local lobster sautéed in a thick vinaigrette and making it into a sort of warm lobster salad, served atop a bed of watercress and fried lo mein noodles, which are a Vietnamese classic.
“Some dishes are super authentic and we don’t mess around with them, and others we can be creative with,” says Miller, whose popular side project, the pop-up Nightshade, has found a permanent home at Soall as well.
To pair drinks with the inventive cuisine, the owners brought in Sarah Marshall, whose background includes lauded Boston restaurants such as Frank McClelland’s L’Espalier and Barbara Lynch’s Butcher Shop, to craft a far-ranging wine list, with everything from a rosé of Gamay from the Loire Valley to a pinot gris from the Czech Republic—unusual for a North Shore Asian spot.
The creative list requires some hand-selling and education, as do some of the dishes, but customers are generally rewarded if they take a chance. For example, if someone is willing to try one order of the rock shrimp and sweet potato fritters or the grilled beef in betel leaves, each of which are sold by the piece, they are likely to order four more right away. “The clientele we have gained have been very supportive,“ Miller says. “It’s the same quality that people pay a lot more money for in Boston.”