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Glorious Vietnamese
By B.A.
Nilsson

Restaurant Saigon
307 Central Ave., Albany, 426-0203. Serving Mon-Thu 10:30-10, Fri-Sat 10:30-11, Sun 10:30-9. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: a daunting mix of native fare
Average entrée price: $5 (noodle soup) to $15
(butter fried squid)
Ambience: warehouse with lanterns
Clientele: adventurous foodies

Vietnamese cuisine entered the Capital Region slowly, first in the guise of elegant eateries like My Linh, which relocated from Madison Avenue to Delaware Avenue in Albany, and Truc’s Orient Express, a branch of the successful Berkshires restaurant that opened in downtown Schenectady and, following the fate of any fancy restaurant in downtown Schenectady, soon closed. Van’s, in MyLinh’s old Madison Avenue space, is a hotel restaurant without the hotel, also on the upscale side.

Restaurant Saigon does away with any pretense. It’s in a space that could just as easily be an appliance outlet, but it’s been gussied up with flea-market style decor that chuckles with irony when contrasted with the earnest service and the almost incomprehensible menu. The ceiling is studded with gaudy plastic lanterns. Some are lighted; one of the lighted ones has a shadowplay interior that moves. And the edges of that lantern blink. Plastic rhinestones in primary colors are pasted onto switchplates, and the walls otherwise sport a tentative array of mirrors and lithos. At the back of the restaurant, an oversized TV hits you with current programs or, if you’re lucky, karaoke. Behind the TV is a shrine with a light-up Buddha at its center, a starburst of light rays emanating from his head.

The menu seems compact, but is so short on descriptions that hundreds of items are packed into a few pages. Appetizers include typical items such as spring rolls, egg rolls, barbecue-sauced meatballs and lemon beef salad, and more unusual-sounding fare like shrimp paste on sugar cane and jellyfish, shrimp and pork salad. They’re priced from $3 to $9, and the preparation and presentation, at least as can be judged from the spring rolls and the meatballs, are more detailed than the cost would suggest.

It’s not fancy—nothing is terribly fancy here—but the intricacy of the spring rolls is impressive, especially if you’ve ever succumbed to the so-named pasty logs that appear on buffet-restaurant tables. The meatballs—and several other dishes—can be sandwiched into romaine lettuce leaves, although you’re not necessarily going to be instructed in this technique. There’s a special way of folding the leaf that keeps everything together, and with a few dabs of sauce (especially the Vietnamese fish sauce, a delicious brew unique to that cuisine), it gives a tasty combo of filling and crunch.

Perseverance and open-mindedness are keys to exploring this restaurant, qualities which have been lacking in at least one other account I’ve read of this place.

Once your eyes begin to focus on the crowded menu, you’ll see several categories, including a full page of exotic drinks—by which I’m not talking rum-based, umbrella-capped libations but rather salted-lemon or sour-fruit concoctions, an avocado milkshake or the interestingly monikered “jelly fruit juice.”

Chow mein and lo mein dishes are listed, but I find myself veering to the noodle soups. Chicken curry noodle soup ($6), for example, is one of those glorious meal-in-itself dishes that combines the excellent flavor of colorfully seasoned meat with a rich soup base sporting a thicket of vermicelli within. Beef noodle soup ($6.50) does the same, although the darker-hued flavor of the meat within tugs the overall flavor into a different, similarly pleasing, direction.

And the list of noodle soups goes on and on, with several variations on the beef (round eye, meatball, et. al.), pork, shrimp, wonton, several vegetarian versions and many more.

Although vegetarian items are scattered throughout the listing, a few are collected under the appropriate menu heading. Some are enigmatic—“Vietnamese vegetarian” certainly leaves some room for speculation—while a simple-sounding dish like “fried mix veg with tofu” ($7) turns out to be a nice array of the usual veggies (broccoli, snow peas, bok choy) with an appealing tofu preparation served over vermicelli and spiced with just a little bit of a kick.

Fried rice dishes, in the $7 range, are generous portions that can include beef or chicken or vegetables; the Saigon Specials are $10 shrimp dishes of which I can commend the sweet and sour fried shrimp as a dish more complex than what sweet and sour has come to suggest on Chinese menus.

Among the rice dishes, and there are many, try the pork chop, shredded pork and egg cake on rice ($7.50), and be prepared to share some of the large portion. That egg cake is also available as an appetizer, and it’s a nice contrast to the spring rolls.

Service tends to be as enigmatic as the menu. If the place isn’t too busy, as was the case during one of my visits, your order will be taken and then you’ll be left to yourself for a while. A small child may dash across the floor, pursued by its mom, but they’ll soon disappear again into the back. It’s as if you’re dining in the large living room of an extended family. Your food will appear with lots of bustle, the server will vanish, and you’ll be able to replace any missing silverware from an adjacent table.

But any small frustrations over service will vanish into the glorious food, both because of its quality and because it’s hard to believe you can pay so little for something so good.

Table Scraps

Nicole’s Bistro at the Quackenbush House (Clinton Avenue and Broadway, Albany) celebrates its ninth anniversary at 6 PM Wednesday (Nov. 12), with a four-course banquet. Following a champagne and hors d’oeuvres reception, enjoy mussels with a saffron, garlic and white wine velouté, a salad of forest mushrooms, tagine of lamb with sauce Grand Veneur, chestnut risotto and much more. Each course will be paired with an appropriate wine. It’s $65 per person, and you can reserve seats or get more info by calling 466-1111. . . . Chefs from the area’s best restaurants—including Jack’s Oyster House, the Albany Marriott, Glen Sanders Mansion, Panza’s on the Green, Park Street Restaurant, Springwater Bistro, the Meeting Place and Professor Java’s—will showcase their talents as they compete in the 13th Annual Culinary Cornucopia to benefit Living Resources, a Schenectady-based agency that provides life-enhancing services to individuals with disabilities. The champagne reception and grand viewing begin at 6 PM Sunday (Nov. 9), with a feast commencing at 7. It takes place at the Albany Marriott (189 Wolf Road, Colonie), and costs $100 per person. Make reservations by calling Joan Meyer at 869-1870, ext. 3330. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).

—B.A. Nilsson

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