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Choose Your Accent

At Saigon Bistro in Westminster, French and Vietnamese cuisines coexist on the menu. In some dishes, the flavors even mingle.

March 08, 2001|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Any ethnic food buff worth his banh mi knows there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County. Little Saigon has a vast range of places, from simple delis and hole-in-the wall restaurants to grand dinner houses.

But for reasons I don't pretend to understand, not many of them represent the French Vietnamese cuisine that developed in the early 20th century when Vietnam was a French colony.

That's a shame. The collision--"mingling" is a kinder word--of the two food cultures was an early form of what we now call Asian fusion, melding continental fundamentals with Asian cooking techniques and ingredients. Saigon Bistro in Westminster is one restaurant that, for the most part successfully, brings the two together.

Actually, it mostly works both sides of the street separately. A lot of dishes are straightforward French. There's also hard-core Vietnamese food here. Above all, the menu, while spotty in places, offers a variety of dishes at extremely reasonable prices.

The restaurant itself is a comfortable place of wicker chairs, soothing decorative art and white table cloths, with a red flower on each table. The atmosphere is hushed but not uptight, and garlic lovers will be especially pleased with the menu.

The hors d'oeuvre list shows something of this restaurant's versatility. Frog legs come in a generous portion, breaded in flour and cornmeal and served with a container of salt and pepper. The legs are a little chewy, but they tread that fine line of flavor between chicken and seafood that either appeals to you or doesn't. It does (and did) to me.

Continuing in the realm of slithery things, there's a somewhat odd rendition of escargot that is appealing though peculiar. A half a dozen snails are smothered by a voluminous mound of toasted, buttery bread crumbs loaded with finely chopped sauteed garlic. The escargot themselves almost become subordinate to the bread (as meat is subordinated to rice in Asian cookery), but the result is satisfying.

I wasn't as keen on the fried calamari. They're served with large chunks of lightly cooked green bell pepper, but the seafood is all but lost beneath its thick layer of batter.

The spring rolls and the imperial rolls are remarkably good. The former is a fairly standard treatment: Chilled vermicelli, shrimp, bean sprouts and other ingredients are wrapped in rice paper and served with a tangy peanut sauce. The freshness of the ingredients makes them a hit. The imperial rolls, filled with ground pork, shrimp and noodles and deep-fried, burst with flavor.

French onion soup gratinee is something of a signature dish at Saigon Bistro. It's a fairly classic version, served in a small crock. A molten cap of Gruyere cheese hovers over the lovely mushiness of a crusty slice of bread swimming in a flavorful beef broth.

The Saigon Bistro rice noodle soup is perhaps its Asian counterpart, a generous tangle of rice vermicelli in a chickeny broth, mixed with shrimp and small slabs of pork. You toss in bean sprouts and chopped green chiles to taste. It's delightful.

The lobster bisque, on the other hand, is over-thickened and too heavy with cream--it barely hints of lobster flavor. The turtle soup, meanwhile, is a rustic concoction full of oddly shaped chunks of turtle meat.

One Vietnamese dish that's definitely worth trying is the rice in a clay pot. It's a melange of barbecued pork, chicken, shrimp and rice, topped with a mound of caramelized onions and black mushrooms. As the dish bakes, the rice forms a crunchy bottom layer that gives the dish an enjoyable textural dimension.

I particularly liked the Saigon Bistro grilled fish, which is chunks of lightly breaded catfish pungent with garlic and served on cold vermicelli--a typically Vietnamese contrast of hot and cold ingredients. The filet mignon is a nice hunk of meat, rubbed with salt and pepper, wrapped in bacon and grilled. At $11.95, it's a bargain.

If you're used to Thai or Indian curry, you might find the Bistro's rendition a somewhat jarring change of pace. I certainly did. It goes easy on the coconut milk and is thickened with cornstarch, but as the slow-building heat kicked in, I found it growing on me. I had the seafood version, which seemed a bit fishy for this treatment, and if I were to order the curry again I'd probably go with the shrimp or pork option (if you're adventurous, there's also goat).

You can tease your taste buds with a number of exotic beverages here, but some are surely an acquired taste. I'm thinking of the preserved lime drink, in which pieces of salted lime skulk at the bottom of a glass of sugary water. It has a slightly salty aftertaste that takes a little getting used to, but I must admit that once you do, it's refreshing.

For dessert, the banana flambe is good fun and will certainly satisfy your sweet tooth. As for the flan, a couple of my guests criticized its mushy texture, but I liked the contrast between the sweetness of the custard and slight bitterness of the caramel syrup.

* Saigon Bistro, 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster. Daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., except Wednesdays, when it closes at 4 p.m. Appetizers and soups: $2.95 to $10.95. Entrees: $4.95 to $11.95. Beer and wine. (714) 895-2120.

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