Crossing the last Ts for the 2008 edition of my dining guide, I called Vietnam Palace for a final fact check – were they still open every day, do they take major credit cards, were they still offering Saigon beer – and learned they were closed. In August of last year, a fire in a neighbouring business forced the Palace to shut its doors and undertake a renovation.
They reopened in December, but it’s taken me seven months to get myself back. My first seat was a perch on their small patio with an elevated view of Somerset Street and a bountiful lunch for $10 – a bowl of pretty decent vegetable soup, a crispy spring roll, and a main dish of shaved lamb infused with fresh mint on a bed of vermicelli, served with nuoc mam and a side salad. I could have done without the icky bottled dressing on the greens (ask for them bare and make use of the punchy fish sauce instead) and the spring roll was somewhat cool, suggesting it wasn’t prepared to order, but it was otherwise a pretty satisfying lunch for a very satisfying price.
Dinner was inside, in their big new dining room with its Olympic-torch lighting and neon pictures of Vietnamese landscapes. Service was not what you’d call consistently warm, but it was efficient and we were fed well and fully for what seemed a pittance.
The Palace menu goes on for pages. Two hundred and twenty items cover appetizers, soups, salads, wrap and roll platters, fondues, seafood dishes, fish, chicken, beef, pork, sizzling platters, rice dishes, crispy egg noodle dishes, rice noodle dishes, noodle soups. Chilli pepper symbols indicate the intensity of fire, though of the “peppered” dishes we tried, most were pretty tame.
If you knew the Palace pre-reno, you’ll find the dishes that worked then work now – noodle soups, wrap and roll platters, rice paper rolls with herby punch, lemongrass and chilli-peppered meats.
The mahogany coloured crispy quail can be a moist, tasty starter. Good too are the salad rolls, tight packages wrapping thin noodle, shrimp, pork, lettuce and mint, dipped in a bean and peanut sauce. I’d avoid the hot and sour soup – too gelatinous, too sweet – and move to a beef noodle soup. Even the small pho is a meal-in-a-bowl, chock full of noodles, bean sprouts, meat and herbs, in a fragrant beef broth you can doctor to your liking. Number 130 is a favourite dish – moist chicken mingled with chillies in a sharp and sweet lemon-grass dressing. A dish that goes as bo sate (#180) is listed as a house special, a sizzling plate of thin beef and red onion in a peppery sauce, permeated with the flavours of garlic and ginger. Fish and shellfish are not so impressive. Hard bricks of fishy-tasting sea bass, rubbery squid, forgettable shrimp, and flavourless scallops are best avoided, though the sauces can be fragrant.
You have to know your way around the menu. Or, just look around and you’ll see that this place serves countless inexpensive meals of noodle soups and grilled meats on rice or noodle. Stick with those and you’ll find the Palace treats you well.
Deep fried bananas with coconut ice cream for kids, housemade crÃ¨me caramel for me. That’s our usual ending.
Ottawa has a number of good Vietnamese restaurants, and this is a modest example. It doesn’t rise above the rest, but neither does it disappoint. The prices are not high and, once you know what to order, the Palace food is not bad.