In Detroit, the decision to open an upscale restaurant in the midst of an imploded economy usually comes with an interesting back-story. Rarely, however, does it involve MiG-21 strafing, open sea typhoons and cut-throat Taiwanese pirates.
But that’s where the history of Kim Dao-Waldis, owner of Clawson’s Da Nang restaurant, begins—and gratefully, winds up in a sleek, exotic suburban dining room surrounded by hands-on flourishes with which the long-time fashion consultant seasons her cedar-red interior.
“I’ve always been attracted to beautiful things, whether in clothes, art and food,” says Dao-Waldis over a massive mug of trà—Vietnamese tea. “I spent eleven years at Niemen Marcus dressing women for events and dinner parties and I’ve tried to work some of what I learned into decorating the dining room.”
At three on a Saturday afternoon—a slow time for walk-in trade—there’s still a smattering of tables seated throughout. Yet there’s a nice open feel to the place, even when it’s crowded; Bauhausy boxes filled with onion grass line the street side windows while inside, sensuous lighting accents an endless loop of striking images of Vietnam, visible from nearly every seat. It’s hard to get up from the table without the sense that you’ve traveled somewhere.
The cuisine of Da Nang is exquisite in kind, simultaneously ethereal and filling, and as it is in Vietnam, a marriage of several influences—native, Chinese and French. France, you’ll recall, was both calling the shots and shooting them a hundred years before the Americans dropped into Indochina, and in the cooking, the best of French influence remains. Crêpes, for example—that quintessential Gallic pancake—appear on Da Nang’s menu in several incarnations, both sweet and savory, and spiced not with the fierce fires of Southeast Asia, but with more temperate herbs like mint, basil and cilantro.
Pho, a Da Nang specialty, is likewise a ubiquitous any-time meal throughout Vietnam. This rich, generally meat-based soup is dished out to all levels of Vietnamese society and in all kinds of dining places, top drawer to low brow. Although the correct pronunciation of Pho plays havoc with Western tongues, it’s a delight for every other part of the mouth. Da Nang’s four versions, ranging from ten to $14, are nothing short of brilliant, loaded with thick, homemade noodles, beef slices thin as rice paper, some accompanied with meatballs, all animated with vegetables and elusive, delicate herbs.
Sauces are a hallmark of Vietnamese cooking, and at Da Nang, whether for dipping or lathering-on, arrive at the table slightly before main courses. The house ‘special sauce’ is chocolate-colored, piquant and sumptuous, and is a natural side for the crepes. I’d guess tomato paste, peanut butter and sesame amid a host of ingredients, but Kim’s not saying—anyway, it’s a natural side for the crêpes. These are one of the kitchen’s several hallmarks—airy and laced with a crisp golden edge, filled with pork, shrimp, tofu or a combo thereof; always with sprouts and scallions to lend a crunchy counterpoint to every bite.
“Vermicelli! Don’t forget to try the vermicelli,” Dao-Waldis urges, taking particular pride in this miniscule Italian pasta, here made from rice flour. It’s another example of the West-meets-East philosophy that overrides her restaurant, her family (she married a Pole) and her worldview.
And with good reason: The Vietnam that Kim Dao-Waldis left in 1978 was in crisis, having not yet experienced the free-trade epiphany that drives its economic engine today. Three years after the withdrawal of American troops and the subsequent fall of South Vietnam, the ‘united’ country was very much in the grip of communist extremists. Families like the Daos, rural fisher folk living just outside Da Nang (hence, the restaurant’s name) were harassed and robbed by various strata within the new government, in part because they were devout Catholics living in a country that was either Buddhist or a-religious. The decision of Dao’s father to flee with his daughter in his fishing boat one summer evening led to countless misadventures on the high seas, culminating in their capture by pirates from Taiwan—who were ultimately caught and executed. Dao-Waldis was ten years old at the time.
Today, the sounds of war within her rural village of Vung Tau have faded, her sleepless nights on a twenty-foot fishing vessel without food or water are foggy childhood memories, and her ultimate sponsorship by an elder brother who’d escaped to Michigan many years before has instilled within her a profound love of America—one that she’s able to balance with her pride at being Vietnamese.
“The war was awful; countless families were destroyed on both sides of the ocean, I know that,” she says. “But if it hadn’t happened, I can imagine the life I’d be leading, scrapping for a living, much as our family had done for generations. I’m here, I’m happy, and for that, I’m very, very grateful.”
Da Nang Restaurant
One South Main
Clawson, Michigan 48017
Monday-Saturday 11am – 9pm