A less than memorable meal


November 22, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I HAD high hopes for Saigon Remembered, a Vietnamese restaurant that opened in August in North Baltimore. After all, owners Huy and Trang Nguyen's previous establishment, Saigon, had established a devoted following in the seven years it existed on Belair Road. Moving into shiny, big digs directly across the street from the Senator Theatre sounded like a good idea.

Perhaps my hopes were a little too high. During two visits - one with a Vietnamese-American friend who prepares top-notch Vietnamese food - I found much of Saigon Remembered's fare bland and lacking in key ingredients.

For example, my friend Joseph and I couldn't find any mint or coriander in either the spring or summer rolls. Those two herbs should have featured prominently in the cold appetizers. Nor could we taste the garlic that should have been in the asparagus and crab-meat soup; the only flavor there came from chunks of white asparagus stalks. And the jasmine tea turned out to be yellow hot water.

I didn't mind the lack of lemongrass in the beef-stuffed grape leaves; in fact, the small, charbroiled squares dipped in nuoc cham (spicy chili sauce) were delicious. But Joseph found the absence of lemongrass inexplicable.

Of the other appetizers we tried, the puffy shrimp tempura was fine, and so was the black mushroom soup, crammed with mushrooms cooked in a delicate, fragrant broth.

In terms of looks and taste, the most impressive thing we tried was the crispy fish. It was also the most expensive at $16.95. However, one big, fat flounder fried in a slightly spicy batter and served intact from head (no eyes, for which I was thankful) to crispy tail was more than enough for two. The meat held up well with or without the ginger dipping sauce.

As for the side of white rice, we had no room for a single grain.

Saigon Remembered does a decent job with pho, the hearty beef noodle soup that is consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Vietnam. There's no skimping on lean beef strips, pho noodles, bean sprouts and barely cooked meatballs. But even if the kitchen did cut corners, the fragrant beef broth laced with coriander would still warm the soul and the body.

The other entrees we tried were less successful. The banh xeo (golden crepe filled with shrimp, chicken, onions and bean sprouts) deserved to be dipped in real nuoc mam (fish sauce), not the watered-down version we got. The two clay-pot meals looked better than they tasted. Neither the chicken nor the vegetarian meal had much flavor, despite more than generous amounts of white meat in the first and black mushrooms in the second.

Dessert here left us shaking our heads. Saigon Remembered gets the vast majority of the beautiful offerings on display from the estimable Patisserie Poupon, a bakery that some say turns out the city's best pastry. So we were bewildered when the ones we ordered here were too stale to finish.

The best dessert by far, in fact, was Saigon's homemade tiramisu. Unlike the Patisserie offerings, the cake was moist and the cream filling fresh.

Making a good cake is no easy task, nor is it simple to cook a decent pot of pho. That Saigon's chefs can do both these things well indicates there's some talent in the kitchen. But as long as they hold back on using the signature pungent dishes that are essential to Vietnamese food, serious aficionados of Vietnamese food will find Saigon Remembered unmemorable.

Saigon Remembered

5857 York Road


Open: For lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $3.95 to $5.95; entrees $6.95 to $16.95

Food: **

Atmosphere: **

Service: **

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