Entrees are aromatic and attractive.
My friend and dinner date, who moved to Madison from Vietnam several years ago, was delighted to see the dinner menu that made up the last few pages of Viet Bistro's extensive selection. Past the "Chinese fusion" page (General Tso and friends), pho, bun, curry and other more recognizable dishes, this two-page dinner menu contained several exciting traditional Vietnamese entrees.
"My mother made these," she smiled, pointing to the Vietnamese pancakes. Of a seafood dish, she said, "These are very popular to have, sitting outside with a beer." Excited to immerse myself in authentic Vietnamese cuisine, I told our server we were ready to order.
"Oh, I'm sorry, we don't have anything on that menu," she said. "We had it, but nobody ordered the dishes, and we had to throw a lot of things away."
My friend switched to Vietnamese to make sure we hadn't missed something, but it was true: None of the dishes she'd wanted were available. We sadly asked for tea and a few more minutes to go over the menu, at which point a few friends joined us.
I took a moment to curse what seemed evidence of my neighborhood's lack of appreciation for non-Westernized cuisine, but then wondered aloud how there could be no demand among the Vietnamese students at the university (the Bistro is located in the strip mall at West Washington and Regent, in the middle of student apartments) for such home-style dishes. My companion pointed at the prices: $12, $15 for an entree on the Vietnamese menu. "Too expensive for them," she shrugged. She had a point.
Now a party of four, we again asked for tea and settled for an assortment: bun, pho, curry and stir-fried noodles, with shrimp and pork salad as an appetizer. The salad is composed of thick carrots and rather limp cabbage, but it also features plump and tasty shrimp, light pork slivers and a refreshing ginger-garlic snap.
Entrees are aromatic and attractive, particularly the steak and beef ball pho and shrimp curry. The curry sauce is rather gelatinous, like refrigerated gravy, but the beef in the pho is tender and the broth welcoming and hearty. Chicken chow fun is crunchy and pleasing in a ramen-and-chicken-soup way, salty and savory and fried and rather clunky. The pork bun is among the most visually appealing dishes, with bean sprouts, meat and basil popping from a pillow of fresh white rice noodles.
Everything is acceptable, neither striking nor off-putting. We never did get that tea.
Viet Bistro's fairly high-end atmosphere and prices would seem to call for those potentially show-stopping traditional dishes. It's hard to know how the restaurant will find its stride.
Perhaps the neighborhood students will flock to the banh mi (a sandwich on baguette that typically includes meat or tofu, cilantro, cucumber, daikon and pickled carrots), a hipster favorite. I wouldn't know.
I returned to the Bistro for lunch at noon and attempted to order one, but the server informed me that they were out of everything on the banh mi page. Perhaps the pho is sufficient to draw Vietnamese cuisine connoisseurs when Saigon Noodles and Ha Long Bay are out of reach, but it's hard not to feel Viet Bistro has done itself a disservice by settling for a lowest-common-denominator Asian menu, and a massive, unwieldy one at that. The goal of the food menu -- recognizable and vaguely Westernized Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes -- could have been accomplished with a short-order setting and about a third of the items.
Viet Bistro's convenient location will likely bring it diners. But as a neighborhood resident, I hope it finds a clearer focus.