When Saigon Café opened next to Coles in 2001, it wasn’t the first Vietnamese place in Buffalo, but it was the first to present Vietnamese cuisine in genteel style, as befitting its Elmwood Village address. Last year, the restaurant moved a mile south to a bigger space with a full bar, and expanded its Vietnamese and Thai menu with more Vietnamese specialties. When I visited for dinner recently, I was wondering if the new specialties and new space meant Saigon Café was going downtown in style as well as address. ¶ The corner restaurant was previously Mode, and before that, Le Metro, two upscale casual efforts. The entrance leads into a small bar with two booths. The main dining room offers floor-to-ceiling views of the Elmwood street scene and patios on both sides of the building.
Much of the menu was familiar from the restaurant’s earlier incarnation, and indeed most Vietnamese-Thai hybrid restaurants. Salad rolls, sweet-and-sour and noodle soups, Thai and Vietnamese stir-fries, Thai curry dishes and salads are all well represented. Our glasses were filled with cucumber water.
An appetizer of nem cuon ($5) was grilled pork, cucumber and pickled vegetables with lettuce and bean sprouts, rolled into a rice paper tube and cut into eight bite-sized pieces, with hoisin dipping sauce. It was fresh and crunchy, but I could not make out the basil and mint. The banh xeo ($8), a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, was terrific. Others used a knife and fork, but I tore off handfuls of the crispy-edged turmeric-flavored pancake and dunked it in the sweet fish sauce before gobbling it down.
Thai tom yum seafood soup ($5.50) held an admirable collection of sea creatures: squid, scallop, shrimp and a clam still in shell. The broth, advertised as hot and sour, was sweet and sour, loaded with fresh mushrooms and scallions.
Goi ngo sen ($12), lotus root salad, comes with chicken, shrimp or bacon, of all things. We opted for shrimp, and what arrived was lettuce topped with a fetching jumble of cucumber, red bell pepper, chopped peanut and stretches of white lotus root, the caliber of udon noodles, but vigorously crunchy. The assemblage was refreshing, the warm poached shrimp tender, but I expected more zip in the dressing.
Crazy noodle with chicken ($11) had flat rice noodle sheets tossed with a colorful assemblage of vegetables, including summer squash and zucchini batons, carrots, green beans and cabbage. It was a meek dish, crazy as Campbell’s chicken soup, with velvety slices of chicken and a clear sauce studded with hunks of ginger root that did add a bite when you chewed one.
I enjoy pho, the staple Vietnamese noodle soup – here available in chicken as well as beef ($8-$12) – but since I was hunting for the new and different, Vietnamese specials were a priority. Ca kho to ($15) is fish braised in caramel sauce, served in a clay pot; ca kho nghe ($15) is a similar dish with a caramel turmeric braising sauce.
Both included sections of catfish filet in an intensely salty-sweet sauce, meant to be spooned out over white rice. The fish was tender and hearty enough to stand up to the syrupy sauce. I liked the turmeric version better, with the spice adding a golden hue and a flavorful, toasty undernote.
A stir-fry of thin-sliced marinated pork belly, thit ram ($14), delivered a touch of wok-smokiness with crunchy vegetables like green beans, slabs of bamboo shoots, red bell pepper and onions, in caramelized sauce spiked with black pepper. The meat wasn’t fatty, as belly often is, making for a well-balanced dish.
Desserts were from Butterwood, including straightforward Americana like a matchbox-sized congo (or seven-layer) bar and a cookie dough bar (both $2), a white chocolate mango bombe ($7) and Belgian chocolate mousse cake ($6) that were serviceable sweets.
Service was attentive, with no one wanting for water. Our server didn’t write down our dishes, and forgot one, getting the kitchen to run one up when I asked for it.
The cooking at Saigon Café was solid, with no unpalatable dishes. Still, my dinner was less thrilling than other Vietnamese feasts I’ve enjoyed, for subtle reasons. I missed bright herbal notes, acidic lime or vinegar, and flickering tongues of chile heat.
In fact, the server hadn’t asked for the heat levels of any dishes when we ordered. I took another look at the menu, where the four-star heat scale was explained, from “medium” to “Asian spicy,” and noticed the fine print for the first time: “upon request.” So perhaps I share the blame for my dinner being tame. But a Vietnamese-Thai restaurant where you have to ask for a noticeable chile application is a first for me.
Another quibble was the permeating sweetness of the meal. Thai and Vietnamese cuisines employ sugar, to be sure. Clay pot kho dishes are built on caramel. But it’s usually bittersweet, broadened with ginger and scallion. These left lingering sweetness instead of flavor as a coda, too much like desserts.
That said, the room is stylish and the people-watching opportunities are prime. With a seasoning sensibility unlikely to challenge many palates, Saigon Café should serve the needs of a broad clientele, even people who don’t count themselves as a friend of pho.
Saigon Café - 7
Expanded Vietnamese and Thai menu suits updated room closer to downtown.
WHERE: 520 Elmwood Ave., 883-1252 (thesaigoncafe.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 11:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4-$8; soups, salads and noodles, $4-$16; entrees, $9-$20.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.