It's utterly unfair for one to judge a restaurant that's been open only a few weeks. But that's the way life is, right? Like the Dread Pirate Roberts says, "Anyone who tells you differently is selling something," even if that "something" happens to be Vietnamese food.
And so the girlfriend and I strolled into Saigon Cafe one evening, ready to absorb all the deliciously polarizing Hyde Park haughtiness an Erie Avenue location affords. The building has housed its fair share of failed restaurant ventures over the years. We had never visited the unfortunately-named "Sake Bomb," but had enjoyed a couple meals from its Italian restaurant predecessor, "Pasta al Dente." Even with a sushi bar in place near the entrance, the layout of the front room still echoed that of tenants past.
We were greeted warmly and led to one of the two adjoining dining rooms. The menus were filled with intimidating Vietnamese words, but thankfully, each menu item was also marked with an alpha-numeric code. So instead of mangling the pronunciation of the "Banh Xeo" appetizer and confusing the hell out of your waitress, you can simply say, "I'd like the 'A-10' please." If you use those codes, I'm pretty sure your server will thank you for it.
To this day I'm still pretty confused about Vietnamese cuisine. Cincinnati joints like Chopsticks, Cilantro, Song Long and Pho Lang Thang all seem to have wildly different menu variations with equally varying flavor profiles. My mind wants to lump Vietnamese food into a nice, neat flavor category like I do Chinese or Thai, but it's damn near impossible. There are simply too many influences and too much diversity for Vietnamese cuisine to be adequately pigeonholed.
I want to say Vietnamese food is categorically spicy, or bold, or soupy, or noodly, or "lemongrassy." It can certainly be all these things...or none of them. It's confounding. Only Peruvian cuisine rivals it in the frustration department.
Saigon Cafe's menu attempts to weed through the confusion with offerings broken up into several defined food categories: noodle soups like the obligatory Pho; noodle dishes; salads; rice dishes; seafood; and stir-fry entrees. The ghost of Sake Bomb lives on in a supplementary sushi menu filled with all the usual suspects.
We started off with the "Banh Xeo" appetizer: an eggy, curried crepe stuffed with shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, bean sprouts and green onions, served with a chili pepper-infused, slightly sweet vinaigrette sauce.
The crepe arrived fairly quickly and brightened the table with an almost glowing curry-yellow vibrance. Omelette-like in its presentation, the crepe was served lukewarm but packed good shrimp and curry flavor. At $10, it was the most expensive appetizer on the dinner menu, but worth the try.
For our entree course, I chose the Com Tam, a rice dish with grilled pork and a fried egg. My girlfriend chose the Bun Salad, the closest-resembling dish to the one she usually gets at Cilantro in Clifton. It was served with lettuce, vermicelli noodles, fresh mint, carrots and bean sprouts, topped with crushed peanuts and served with a vinaigrette dressing.
The presentation of all the dishes was impressive. Somehow, however, what arrived as my entree didn't seem to match what I'd imagined after reading the menu description. I got the impression it would be a rice bowl dish in which all the components were mixed together, much like the Korean rice dish known as Bibimbap. Instead, a plate arrived with each of the three main components separated: rice, meat and egg.
The fried egg was cooked well: not too runny but not overcooked such that I couldn't take advantage of the yolk, blending it with the other ingredients. The meat, again, was lukewarm, with an all-too-subtle soy sauce component.
My girlfriend's Bun salad had a markedly fresh, mint flavor, which may have seemed overpowering only because the other ingredients were, at last, rather muted. On the other hand, her accompanying spring roll, which was cut up and placed atop the salad, seemed quite flavorful --one of the highlights of the meal.
At $40, the price wasn't terrible given we had a $10 appetizer and a beer. Unfortunately, our meal overall was lukewarm and bland. This surprised us, given our experiences with other area Vietnamese restaurants. Which begs the question: was the lack of flavor due to our menu selections? Are our American palates too used to over-seasoning? Is Saigon Cafe's owner trying to tone down usually bolder components? Or should we chalk it up to the fact that we've simply caught a new restaurant at a time when it's still trying to find its way? Perhaps it's all of the above.