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Vietnamese Variety

Song Long gets cooking with Vietnam's colonial heritage

Part Las Vegas, part late-period Saigon, all glitter and brilliantly illumined glitz, the Song Long Bistro is less a French-Vietnamese restaurant than a high-wattage visual experience with built-in refreshments. Past a canopy twined in white lights, behind a window-wall hung with shiny strips of Mylar, it glints in the far-Bellaire Boulevard dark: a prismatic world of chandeliers and huge, sylvan photomurals that unfold into mirrored infinity.

There may be better Vietnamese food in town, but there is nothing like this singular room -- or this entertainingly Gallicized menu, its French section replete with roasted lobster au fromage and "large edible snails" in garlic butter. This is the first of Houston's Vietnamese spots to openly capitalize on the country's colonial heritage, and if the results are wildly mixed, they are nothing if not interesting. At the bottom of the Song Long scale lurks a cloying, nursery-foodish chicken-and-cheese bisque that's more Peoria than Paris; at the top reigns a bicultural salmon steak that could hold its own against any piece of fish in the city.

"Salmon in butter," says the menu, which doesn't begin to tell the story. A whisper-thin film of rice flour makes the fish gild handsomely during its quick tour through a buttery pan; it emerges perfectly cooked, slightly garlicky, with just enough delicate bones to keep you on your toes. This Eurasian salmon needs no adornment -- certainly not the dish of marginally petrified mayonnaise that Song Long provides, a bas-French touch. If only the restaurant would use its fine steamed mustard greens as a garnish instead of shredded iceberg, this would be an irreproachable plate of food. As it is, it's quite swell.

So is the saffron-yellow Vietnamese crepe, a much-abused dish that sizzles up thin and crisp here, its airy pancake envelope hiding mushrooms, shrimp and a profusion of crunchy bean sprouts. It's proof that Song Long can do well by some of the Vietnamese classics, even though the grilled chao tom -- a demanding affair of minced shrimp wrapped around sugar-cane skewers -- is unforgivingly rubbery, horribly dry.

But solace resides in the vegetarian Mekong soup, a lovely version of the Vietnamese hot-and-sour broth: tart with tamarind and fresh pineapple, bristling with bamboo shoots, green chile and tomato, it's a non-threatening introduction to a genre that can seem alien in its more common oceanic forms.

Rotisserie-roasted duck sounds more modern and eclectic than it turns out to be; it's actually a classic hacked half-bird with soft, mahogany skin, the usual layers of fat and an aromatic tinge of five-spice powder. Nice enough. But spoon on some slightly sweetened vinegar laced with minced shallots, and the duck is transformed into something irresistible. It's hard to believe such a simple sauce could make such a difference.

Pan-fried in their shells, the garlic-and-black-pepper shrimp that Houstonians have learned to love can be had here in an appealing version, spiked with jalapeno wheels and plenty of green onion, underlain with the faintly sweet note that informs many of the dishes here. One night's shellfish were neither iodiney nor overcooked, an encouraging sign. Even better: behemoth oysters batter-fried in butter, crisp and light enough of crust to teach local seafood houses a thing or two. Dip them into a dish of black pepper; squeeze on a hit of lime; ponder the perversity of a nation that prefers ketchup.

Down the exotic byways of Song Long's voluminous menu, with its custard-apple milk shakes and its crab farcie Mintiniquaise, there are enough plain, straightforward dishes to assuage the timidest members of a dining party. Chicken steamed with mustard greens, painted with transparent brown sauce and heaped into a plump dome looks striking but tastes unaffectedly homey. A respectable filet mignon from the French menu pages has a nicely seared crust, a reasonable degree of tenderness and an escort of crinkle cut French fries that are far crisper and more palatable than they have any right to be. They're actually better than the alternative steak side dish here -- a molded hillock of tomatoey fried rice that seems to have wandered in from a Tex-Mex joint.

Those miniature vermicelli-stuffed egg rolls that even little kids like work fine here, their crusts dryly blistered instead of shinily glazed; the add-it-yourself packaging of frilly lettuce and mint sprigs was unusually fresh two visits running (but those strange, pungent, heart-shaped leaves in the lineup take some getting used to).

A room this flamboyant, however, is suited to wilder stuff than steak and egg rolls. Even though the French-style snails ("Oc Nhoi Bourgogne," in Song Long-speak) never seem to be available, you can live dangerously with a dish of so-called helix snails sauteed with a sweet, spicy lemon-grass paste; they may be rubbery little critters, and the waiters may not be able to explain how they differ from the other snails, but hey -- they'll give you bragging rights among your foodie friends. And the prices here are modest enough, with many entrees in the $6-$8 range, that a little what-the-hell experimentation is painless.

Watch out for the flambeed campfire beef, which flamed so enthusiastically (and so long) in its tabletop, stainless-steel pot on a recent evening that the point of diminishing returns was reached -- and then exceeded. With less cooking time (and a lot less Sterno), this braised-beef casserole with its lively cargo of ginger shards and dried lily flowers could have been a winner.

Song Long is the kind of restaurant where you secretly want a flaming pot on your table, though. Looking around this festive room, with its deliriously treacly Vietnamese pop soundtrack, its mirrored-ball spinning above the dance floor, its waiters clad in stylishly batiked vests, it's hard not to ask when the party's going to start. You sip the obligatory Kendall Jackson chardonnay from a belled-and-fluted goblet, humming helplessly along to "Sealed with a Kiss" and wondering when this big, new establishment will find its audience. So far it seems tentative: mostly empty, diffident in its dealings with non-Asians, the kind of place where the service is pleasant but you wind up asking for this, that and the other.

For the present, Song Long feels like a private theme park. Watch the light refract from its zillion surfaces. Scrape the whipped topping and maraschino cherry from a light, graceful flan that a Frenchman could love. Go for broke with one of the corny fried-ice-cream desserts: they're oddly engaging, rather like vanilla ice cream wrapped in a beignet, with heavyish fruit fritters in attendance (yes to the banana; no to canned jackfruit and pineapple). Maybe the party's started already.

Song Long Bistro, 8282 Bellaire, 776-8600.

Song Long Bistro:
Vietnamese crepe $4.45;
salmon in butter, $8.95;

vegetarian Mekong soup, $6.95.

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