New Vietnamese bistro underwhelms

Saigon Bistro occupies the former location of Café Nove.

American flavor palettes are growing up faster than ever before. Sure, the typical consumer's international intake might not expand beyond ambiguous foods such as "Asian chicken," but the invasion of new flavors is at least worth a little social currency.

Even commercially, Americans are growing interest in foreign foods beyond fried rice. Ethiopian, Thai, Indian and, in the case of Saigon Bistro, Vietnamese cuisine is gradually gaining a respected presence in an ever-competitive restaurant industry.

Saigon, which opened late in November, offers a menu of traditional Vietnamese cuisine, noted characteristically for its fusion of French and East Asian cuisines. Ranging from pho, a traditional soup of rice noodles, light vegetables and salty stocks, to more diverse meals of catfish and tofu, Saigon's menu has the potential to introduce Columbia residents to brand new culinary experiences.

Walking into Saigon, taking prime residence downtown in the former space of Café Nove, one is greeted with hodge-podge decor whose humble charm still puts off an air of luxury. Saigon's replaces the traditional restaurant experience with counter service, which can be done well, so long as the service is still conducive to comfort and intimacy.

I ordered the traditional pho with chicken (pho ga) and spring rolls, fairly basic for Vietnamese cuisine, but certainly meals with potential to be made at a higher-than-expected quality. My spring rolls, whose delivery to my table seemed tediously long for an easily fried appetizer, were a tad dried out, but had potential, given the generous amount of filling inside. My pho unfortunately required lots of extra seasoning on my end and was stingy with substance compared to the spring rolls. The chicken in the soup was chewy, less tender than slow-cooked, stew-style meat and poultry.

The price of the meals, being a student, was redeeming, as my entire meal was under $10, tip included. However, its hours of operation are a tad confusing, as I was disappointed by a locked front door at four in the afternoon. Saigon closes for two hours between its lunch and dinner periods, and its dinner period is not open very long after dark. Considering its premiere location on Broadway and its potential to market to a student populus with a taste for something different, Saigon should reconsider its hours of operation.

I would also advise Saigon reconsider its counter-service system. Customers, even those with less-critical opinions than my own, want their money to go a long way, and being able to sit and order through table service is a relaxing break from quick-stop cuisine that defines a college student's intake. Saigon is not a sub shop and should not be treated like one. As I said, its ambience is quite upscale compared to other Columbia locations, and its newly renovated interior should be used to its maximum potential.

All in all, Saigon Bistro under-impressed me, but it, considering its age, has plenty of room to grow. It should not be afraid to innovate its menu even further and provide a culinary experience completely unique in a world of T.G.I. Friday's and soup from a can. Customers can handle different and desire reasons to eat outside of the norm, even in a mid-Missouri college town.

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