When a restaurant disappoints

Discovered a new restaurant in downtown Montreal last week. I tried to post the following on Chowhound, where we had originally found some favourable reviews, but my posts about this restaurant were deleted even after multiple attempts to post. A little too harsh for them, I guess. For the record, this is what I thought of it:

First off, I need to say that my husband and I have been very fortunate in not having experienced too many disappointing Vietnamese restaurants. Either just lucky, or just knew where to look. Granted, sometimes we base our decision on whether or not to enter a resto on the Asian/White ratio (i.e., if a lot of Asians are sitting in there, it can’t be all that bad, right?). I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what is good and what is not good. So, it was surprising to me to find that the most disappointing Viet restaurant we’ve ever been to was right here in Montreal, home of a fairly substantial Viet population, who should know what they’re doing. I’ve tried Viet in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and in a lot of out-of-the-way places in small towns, and this place was even worse than the dumpy single Viet resto that we once found in a very small Ontario town (which must have been happy to have even that one place to represent Viet food). So, what is my choice for most disappointing Viet resto ever? Drum roll, please . . .

bad resto soup Pho Saigon VIP, 1850 Ste. Catherine W.—south side, just east of St. Marc. We had tried this place on the weekend based purely on what some posters had written on the Chow Hound board, but our experience was so unbelievably disappointing to all of us at the table (4 adults, 5 kids) that it made us question the authenticity of the posters who gave it glowing reviews of “better than Pho Nguyen.” At one point, we said to ourselves, “Do you think those were friends/family of the owners who were effusive in their praise?”

Okay, I’ll give them some good points first:

1- Yes, the décor is nicer than a lot of small Viet restos (which our server was very proud to point out to us, unprompted—“See how smooth our tables are? Our clients like very much our décor.”)

2- The flavour of the banh xeo (Viet pancakes) was as it should be, but then again, you can’t really mess up a batter of of rice flour/coconut milk, with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp. Or can you? (See point #1 below.)

3- The che ba mau was lovely and flavourful (but see point negative point #6 below).

4- Service was on time.

Now, on to the bad points:

1- The Pho Satay. Okay, what can I say? So many different levels of disappointment here that I hardly know where to begin. There was someone on this board who had wondered about a place in Montreal to get a good pho satay, and I have to say that this ain’t it. Our server bragged so much about this dish, emphasizing to us that this is an authentic Viet dish that only this restaurant was brave enough to put on a menu, and said that we wouldn’t be disappointed, so in the end, we couldn’t *not* order it. In fact, *two* of us ordered it (d’oh! move). But it failed on several levels:

a. First off, we were confused by the menu description in English, compared to the Viet description of a pho: “Stir-fry beef in satay sauce”, it said in English, with a photo of a very liquidy, definitely non-stir-fry-looking bowl. Now, I always give any ethnic resto a certain amount of leeway in their translation into English/French, so we ask for clarification when necessary, which we did in this case. How come it’s called a stir-fry, when it looks like a soup? Is it a soup, or is it dry? Oh, definitely, definitely not a soup, the server assured us. It’s a dry dish. That’s what we wanted, something dry. But when the bowl came, lo and behold, it was a soup, just like in the photo. The server either was not being honest with us, or didn’t understand us. Okay, but at least it tasted good, right?

b. If indeed this was supposed to have been a pho satay, it wasn’t in the least bit spicy, and it tasted like something entirely different: a bun rieu. Bun rieu is a Viet snail soup that is not that easy to find in Montreal Viet restos. My husband and I love a good bun rieu when we can find it in Toronto, and so he clearly recognizes the taste. That’s what the taste and texture were like: a passable bun rieu.

c. Oh yeah—it was bland and lacking any kind of interesting flavours.

2- The Banh Xeo was slightly burnt, and as a result, the slices of pork were dry and hard and chewy. At a pricey $12.95 for one banh (compared to about $7 or $8 at most Viet restos), I expected much, much better.

3- The Curry Chicken served with rice/vermicelli (but with no option of the traditional French bread) was spicy, yes, but completely lacking in any kind of flavour. No hint of the usual yummy coconut-milkiness of Viet curry, no saltiness, just very bland. It was just blah with spice hitting the back of your throat. That’s what they should rename this dish: “Spicy Blah Chicken Curry.”

4- The Pho with Rare Beef was utterly lacking in flavour. It wasn’t even slightly on the sweet side, as mentioned by one poster on this board. It just had no flavour. And the pieces of beef were overdone, not deliciously red and ready to be dunked in the broth to the taster’s satisfaction. Again, a suggested name change: “Blah Pho, with Beef.”

5- The Guoi Cuon sauce. The guoi cuon themselves were fine: large rolls of thin rice paper with the requisite filler ingredients of pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, coriander, and even a fancy little sprig of green onion at the end, for show. Nothing that you could really mess up here. But oh, the sauce. What an utter disappointment like I’ve never known before with guoi cuon sauce. Guoi cuon should traditionally be served with a hoisin sauce, usually spicy. (A good guoi cuon sauce involves hoisin, chili paste or Sriracha, a little bit of salt, a pickled-carrots mixture, and just a tiny bit of water to thin it out, then crushed peanuts on top). VIP’s sauce was so completely watered down, that the first word that came to mind for us was “cheap”. Of course, this made the sauce, again, bland. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) And not a single crushed peanut in sight.

6- Speaking of cheap . . . The Che Ba Mau was good enough that three of our kids went up to the bar at the end of the meal to request three more glasses for dessert. But what that employee (a teenagerish-looking young man) did was noticeably awful that even our 11-year-old and 8-year-old felt it was important enough to report to us, and to suggest that we only pay half-price: the employee cheapened out on the green jellies because he was trying to squeeze as much as he could into their three glasses and someone else’s take-out glass. As the kids reported, the container of green jelly was running low, and he put so little into each glass that they could just tell that his mind was working franctically trying to figure out how to best get money for four glasses of che ba mau, without putting in the required amount. I’d rather that he simply told us, “I only have enough for two glasses,” or “It’ll take me 30 minutes to make more jelly.” But to cheap out like that? Not cool. Of course, he filled the rest of the glass with the cloudy coconut milk/syrup mixture, so you really couldn’t tell how much jelly was, or should have been, in there. Luckily for us, we had the fortune of having already ordered a glass at the beginning of the meal, so we knew what to compare the subsequent three glasses to. Don’t try to fool kids. They know.

7- The Boasting. There were so many things that our server told us in a boastful tone that either were not true, or just struck us as unnecessary and laughable strutting. We wondered if he were just an overly confident part-owner/family member/friend (he kind of hedged on his answer when we asked him), or if he was just delusional (and I hate to use that word, but it just seems fitting). Here were some examples:

“The décor is wonderful and the tables are smooth.”

“The food here is super high quality, but at fast-food prices.” (No, not really. Prices were either on par with most other Viet places, or see my comment about the banh xeo above. And no, the quality was not super high.)

“Nobody else here in Montreal puts pho satay on the menu. Nobody makes it like we do. Okay, maybe one place in Côte-des-Neiges, but that’s because our owner used to own that place, and she sold it, and they learned it from her.”

“Our bun bo Hue used to be a special on the weekend only, but so many French people come in here asking for it because they love it so much, that we had to change and put it on the everyday Special Menu.” (Really? Excuse my skepticism, but in the 4½ months that you’ve been open, you’ve developed such a large, vocal fan base and they ask for an item so much, that you’ve already had to reprint a new menu? Okay.)

“Our owner has worked hard for over 20 years. Can you believe that? She’s a 52-year-old woman, and she works so hard!” (I’m sorry, I must interject here with a non-food comment: Don’t boast about a 52-year-old having worked hard for 20 years. Many 52-year-olds work hard over the course of 20 years. Fifty-two is not the new 92. You’re still young. You can work hard without it seeming like a heroic effort.)

8- And finally, as another poster here mentioned, yes, the hallway leading to the washroom smells uncomfortably strong of incense. Some people won’t be able to stand that while they’re using the facilities.

So, to sum up: flavourless, boastful, cheap in quantity, but not cheap in pricing. This resto is all style, and no substance. You can’t get worse than that for a Viet resto. At the very best, I can put it down as a busy Friday off-night for them. At the very worst, I can sum up Pho Saigon VIP in two words: Never again.