Saigon Palace, 609-B Taylor Ave., Annapolis, (410) 268-4463. Open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, Sundays for dinner only. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes.
Supposedly Saigon Palace was Harrison Ford's favorite place to eat when he was in Annapolis shooting "Patriot Games." Hard to believe when you consider all the good Maryland-style seafood he might have had, but there you are. I will say the first thing you'll notice when you enter this small Vietnamese restaurant is a snapshot of the movie star and the owner.
The wonder is how Ford ever stumbled upon it. Saigon Palace is located in a small shopping center just off Rowe Boulevard on Taylor Avenue, next to a Graul's supermarket. For Baltimoreans on the way to the Bay Bridge, it's just a slight jog off Route 97. It looks like any other small-shopping-center Oriental restaurant -- unprepossessing, with a sign warning that restrooms are for the use of customers only.
Inside, though, a lot has been done with a little. The soft lighting helps, and so do the deep-green tablecloths, plants and decorative Oriental fans against the cream-colored walls. The taped music is American Light. (I overheard one customer ask if the restaurant had any Vietnamese music.)
Baltimoreans don't get much chance to sample Vietnamese food unless they travel to Washington; we have only one restaurant -- Cochin -- that specializes in the cuisine and it's pretty cautious in what it offers to us uninitiated. Saigon Palace will expand your horizons -- you'll never mistake the dishes there for any other sort of Asian cooking. The French influence is obvious, although completely incorporated into the dishes.
Take, for instance, Shaking beef ($12.95), one of Saigon Palace's specialties. Cubes of beef had been marinated in Grand Marnier, sauteed in butter and served over a salad with an Oriental vinegary-sweet dressing. It sounds dreadful; it actually tasted pretty good.
Almost all of the dishes we tried had that undercurrent of sweetness along with tang or spice. The exception was roast quail ($13.95), three tiny plump birds grilled and bathed in a sauce of coconut milk and garlic. This was a dish that needed to be more heavily seasoned than it was. Our waiter explained when we ordered that the customer dictates the amount of spiciness of each dish. Because the Vietnamese food I've had before had been so fiery it made my hair stand on end, I requested mild, which in this case was a mistake.
The quail were another house specialty, but the best of our main courses -- grilled pork on rice crepe ($9.25) -- wasn't. The slivers of pork were tender and immensely flavorful, charred with a good tangy-sweet marinade. I loved the contrast of the rice crepe, soft and bland and totally unlike a French crepe, although my friends thought it too soft and bland. All our dishes were prettily garnished with leaf lettuce, carved marinated carrot and radish slices, and sprigs of fresh cilantro.
Cilantro was the dominant flavor in the northern beef soup ($2.75), supposedly Vietnam's most popular soup, although it tasted like beef noodle to me. But the slices of beef were tender, the rice noodles not too mushy, and the beef broth had an intriguing suggestion of sweetness that grew on me.
Saigon Palace makes fine Vietnamese crispy rolls, which are to Chinese egg rolls as silk to polyester. The rice paper wrapper was crisp and golden, with a minced filling of pork, crab and vermicelli.
I liked beef in grape leaves ($4.50) as a first course just as well. (It can also be had as an entree.) It involved grapevine leaves and a ground beef filling, but other than that it bore no resemblance to Greek dolmas. These were sauced with a spicy concoction sparked with chopped peanuts and dried onion bits.
Salad is very much part of this cuisine. A light supper might consist of Saigon special salad with shrimp, pork and shredded vegetables. A small salad, with lettuce and marinated vegetables, came with each of our dinners.
Seafood isn't as predominant a part of the menu as you might expect, given Saigon Palace's proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, but there are several shrimp dishes and one intriguing possibility that wasn't available the night we were there: baby squid stuffed with shrimp, crab and pork flavored with pineapple.
That's about as exotic as the restaurant gets. Probably wisely, it tempers its cuisine to its customers. Desserts, for instance, are pastries from the bakery at the Watergate. This sounds like a great idea -- Asian desserts are not most Americans' idea of desserts -- but the Sunday we were there they had sat around a day or two too long and ended up being pretty soggy.
Next: Ruth's Chris Steak House