Mama Rouge, open since October 2014 along the Georgetown waterfront in the former Bangkok Joe’s location, combines southeast Asian foods with a touch of French fare and flair. The result is a southeast Asian bistro drawing heavily from the food cultures of Thailand, Vietnam and France, and an entirely new restaurant concept, not merely Bangkok Joe’s reborn with a new name. But does all of this mixing and matching produce magic at Mama Rouge?
Beyond the bright red colors and the large central chandelier, the first thing which catches your attention at Mama Rouge will be the tray of three house-made condiments awaiting you at your table. There’s a spicy mayo, Nuoc Mam, which is a Vietnamese fish sauce, and house-made sriracha. The latter is the star of the show, heavy on sweet, fermented chile flavor with a toned down spice level.
The menu is broken up into hors d’oeuvres, salads, sticky chicken dishes, pho, banh mi, curry, noodles and BBQ. Whereas almost all of the dishes here clearly start with Asian roots, there’s also a separate Plats section of the menu which is French dominated. That’s where you’ll find French classics such as duck a l’Orange, and steak frites au poivre. There are also vegetable sides, and nonalcoholic beverages such as Thai iced tea, toasted coconut milk, French soda, and Thai basil soda.
The starters include dumplings, pork belly bao buns, spring rolls, and Thai chicken wings, fried and slathered with a coconut curry sauce. A surprising star came in the form of the Thai chicken salad. This proved to be an appropriately light start to a heavy meal, loaded with fresh herbs and bright, vibrant flavors.
There are nine different banh mi variations, and you get your choice of baguette or croissant. I urge you, go croissant. The soft, buttery pastry provides a great counter to the loaded sandwich, stacked high with options such as roasted brisket, coconut shrimp, pork belly, or honey BBQ chicken, and layers of sauce, herbs and avocado.
You can basically make your own pho, choosing from proteins, dumplings and other toppings. As for the curry, you’ll find green split pea with chicken, charred tomato ruby red with brisket, yellow pumpkin squash, Malaysian massaman, and a shrimp and lobster tail curry.
While Thai curries are typically eaten poured over steamed rice, at Mama Rouge, you’ll get a loaf of crunchy French bread to soak up all that sauce (don’t worry, you get a small plate of steamed rice, too). The curry is brought table side, loaf of bread in tow, in an enamel pot you might otherwise expect to find French onion soup. This is the kind of cross cultural cuisine innovation I can get behind.
Among the noodles, you’ll find pad Thai (find my note on pad Thai in Thailand here), half a dozen chilled vermicelli noodle dishes, and other selections. In this instance, I was here for the khao soi. Topped with a mound of crunchy egg noodles reaching to the ceiling and made with a base of their yellow pumpkin squash curry, it in many ways encapsulates the restaurant — a tasty spinoff of an Asian classic. It’s good enough to hold up on its own accord, but also veers far enough from its inspiration that it’s likely not what you had in mind when you ordered, either.
The dessert reins are handed back over to France, as you might expect. Find creme brulee, lemon custard tart, Mama’s crepes Suzette, and Pain Perdu, served with braised pineapple. It’s an achingly sweet, fried French toast, topped with powdered sugar and served with a passion fruit puree which is worth the price of admission on its own.
Quench your thirst with a selection of French wine, or one of their revamped classic cocktails, or sparkling cocktails, such as the Death by Hemingway, with cognac, absinthe, maraschino and Cremant. There are also two cocktails on tap (both pictured), the Framboise Goose, with Grey Goose, Curacao, maraschino, lime and raspberry, and the Vieux Carre, utilizing rye whiskey from Virginia distillery Copper Fox, Averna, cognac and Benedictine served over one hulking ice cube. Their house-made sriracha makes an appearance on the drinks list as well, in the form of an always available Sriracha Bloody Mary.
To come back to the question posed in the title, the cross cultural mash-up of French and Southeast Asian definitely does work at Mama Rouge. If you’re looking for strict authenticity though, this likely isn’t up your alley. That means you must embrace the idea that you won’t be finding a traditional take on your favorite dish. Instead, it’s the twists and turns along the way, from a crunchy baguette for sopping up your Thai curry to a flaky croissant enclosing your Vietnamese banh mi, which provide a satisfying change of pace.