The Vietnamese Kitchen used to be a very yellow, fairly plain restaurant situated next to the Tommy and Lefebvre on Bank Street and run by a kind family. I used to go yearly for recuperative pho following the annual blowout sale on kids’ skis. Then a fire took out T and L and seriously damaged TVK. The building was condemned and, for 18 months, The Vietnamese Kitchen disappeared.
It was born again nine months ago, taking over the space vacated by Pe-Nan Wok in Old Ottawa South. I had a solo supper at the new Vietnamese Kitchen a few weeks ago – a pretty good one – and then brought the family recently, with more mixed results.
It’s still yellow, still on Bank Street, but now further down, at Sunnyside. Its digs, while hardly memorable, are less plain, and the very kind family that used to run it is still here and still kind.
The enormous menu has survived the move. Like lots of Vietnamese menus, it features lots of repetition. A variety of beef noodle soups are subtle variations on the same theme. Marinated, sweetened grilled meats and seafood come with rice, and the same lineup is repeated with vermicelli, and again with wrap and roll dishes. With these, you are given the ingredients yourself, displayed in neat piles on a platter, along with a stack of softened rice paper rounds. You stretch one out, pile it on, roll it and wolf down.
These we like.
There’s also a sizable Chinese (mostly Szechuan) section, along with about 40 vegetarian dishes that borrow from a variety of Asian cuisines, mostly North American-style.
It’s all pretty filling and affordable, and – if you stick with the Vietnamese dishes – tasty stuff. I’ve been less impressed with the Chinese food. And if you have trouble with MSG, you’ll want to avoid it altogether.
My solo supper began with a sour tamarind soup, the spicy broth sweetened with pineapple, fired up with chili flakes, and filled in with soft fish, chunky tomato, crunchy bean sprouts, scallion, and celery. A rough chop of cilantro provided the perfume. Then came shrimp rolls – lettuce, mint, shrimp, vermicelli tucked into softened rice paper and rolled into fat sausages. These were fine, though the peanut sauce seemed industrial, improved with a topping of house-roasted peanuts.
The mango salad may have been the best thing I ate. The fruit was in ripe form, its softness and sweetness balanced with red chilies, onion, green pepper, carrot, roasted cashews and coriander. There was a lot of it for $7, and it made a pretty good breakfast the next day. With this I drank lemon grass tea (they dry their own here, and it makes an excellent brew), I read my book, and listened to the happy banter of the women who run the front.
The pho begins with a fragrant broth, piled with noodles, onion and your choice of protein, and is then furnished with the usual stuff – herbs, sprouts, chilies, a wedge of lime. The grilled meats and shrimp in the wrap-and-roll platters, and again on a bed of vermicelli, with cucumber, bean sprouts, grated carrot and peanuts – are good enough. From the menu’s Chinese side the sauces are irksomely salty, some are too thickened, starchy, some too weak (particularly the peanut sauce) and the vegetables are mostly pedestrian.
They have the usual imported beer and some negligible wine. But the back page lists fruit shakes, Vietnamese coffees (with condensed milk) and bubble tea. I stuck with lemon grass.
You won’t pay much for this food, and you’ll leave pretty filled up and very well cared for. Order carefully, and all will be fine. Though, like the room itself, hardly memorable.