Working in kitchens for more than 20 years, Six Mile Pub Red Seal chef Jeff Kelland says he got into cooking by process of elimination.
“I was broke. I needed a job where I could be warm all the time, not have to buy groceries, girls would like it – ‘What do you do for work? Oh, you’re a cook – you’re making breakfast,’” he says with a quick grin.
That, and the lifestyle of staying up late and sleeping all day, made a 19-year-old Kelland a happy boy.
Now though, he’s settled down, has a girlfriend and daughter of his own and nothing makes him happier than a hot bowl of phó at Green Leaf Bistro on Goldstream Avenue.
“What defines a phó place is its broth and so far this is the best I’ve had in the city,” he says.
Service is quick and friendly. Kelland orders an iced coffee with the phó: a beef noodle soup with sliced rare beef and tendon. The lack of vegetable-based phó leads me to order the vegetarian crispy noodle as Kelland has no recommendations. “I’ve never strayed too far on this menu. I always order the phó,” he says – it’s what they do best.
The ambiance at the Green Leaf Bistro is decidedly different from many downtown Vietnamese restaurants. Its natural greens and dark wood furnishings offer an upscale feel with plenty of elbow room.
Kelland’s coffee arrives in a little pot suspended over a half cup or so of condensed milk. “You have to wait for it to drip down. It’s similar to a French press.” After a short wait he stirs the two together and pours it over a glass of ice.
He says a lot of French influence in Vietnamese food comes from the colonization of the country by France which continued for decades starting in the late 1800s. “There are elements of French cuisine in phó. Good French comfort foods are often cheaper cuts of meat that are cooked long and slow so they become rich, yummy and delicious.”
The food arrives and looks terrific. The vegetarian crispy noodle is topped with crisp broccoli, cauliflower and slices of carrot along with a generous helping of deep fried tofu. The tofu is overcooked for my taste, but the veggies are fresh. The dish has the added bonus of thin egg noodles to sop up the sauce, which includes a mixture of soy, oyster sauce, coconut juice, garlic and ginger – delicious.
Not one to eat beef, let alone tendon, I ask Kelland what’s the attraction. “The broth is rich, it’s got good mouth feel. The tendon, bones and meat is simmered in it for a long period of time. … I think there’s cardamom, cinnamon, anise and fat – nobody in town does broth this good, this rich,” he says.
Long, slow cooking is likely the key to Green Leaf chef Phong Phan’s phó surmises Kelland – and he’s right. Phan joins us for a few minutes after the lunch rush subsides. “The most important thing, the broth,” he says. “We use real bones, cook overnight for 10 hours.”
The family business began in 2008 with a location on Douglas and expanded just over a year ago when the men in the family joined their sisters to open the West Shore location. Phan says phó is a popular winter dish while their vermicelli bún, spring rolls and grilled lemongrass chicken also keep customers happy.