An Ideal Place?
In a city blessed with a vast horizontal expanse of excellent Vietnamese restaurants, I suppose there's only one way for a Saigon-style newcomer to go, and that's vertical. The market is growing up, as in "upscale" and "uptown," I mean, or even "upstairs," as evidenced by the two-story room trend pioneered at Mo Mong and Dalat Vietnamese Bistro. The 300-seat Vietopia restaurant, which opened about two months ago in the spanking-new center at Westpark and Buffalo Speedway, is the latest bold bidder in this Asian eatery swank-stakes.
Vietopia's build-out is as ambitious as its name, fitted with contemporary pale wood and stone tiles, clearly expensive. The requisite two-story open atrium soars over the main dining room. Sparkling glassware is meticulously racked over the sexy curved bar, and the windows are elaborately swathed in thick gathered drapes. The ceiling fans are cleverly mounted sideways, like airplane propellers, and fitted with bamboo fans for blades. Single woven paddles magically tick back and forth on a rod along the room's back wall, as if wafted by invisible servants.
I've noticed a room that makes you say "ahh" often boasts prices that make you say "ooh," or even "ouch." At Vietopia, appetizers and soups hover in the $6 to $8 range, and entrées run from $8 to $17; for bargain bites, better look to the $6.95 lunch specials.
It was a setup for high expectations, indeed. To heck with mundane spring rolls or egg rolls, we decided. We started straight in on two of the menu's top-end appetizers, the roast duck ($8.95) and the crab fingers ($7.95). We went nuts over the duck, even if it did require a good bit of bone picking. The skin was crispy-chewy and deep roasted red, the meat delightfully nongreasy and moist. Served with fat fried patties of sweet, sticky jasmine rice and a fruity honey-garlic dipping sauce, it could have made a meal in itself if there hadn't been so many of us fighting over it.
The tempura crab fingers suffered by contrast, although the problem wasn't with the meaty little thumbs, lightly battered and breaded in crushed rice crackers and fried. We liked the grilled scallions scattered about, too. No, the weird part was the dipping sauce. Described as a vinaigrette, it was more like a watercress pesto, oily and bland. It's difficult to dip an already deep-fried food into a cup of cold oil, we discovered.
Our luck with entrées was similarly split. By far our favorite was the house special lemon beef ($8.95), which we chose on the waiter's earnest recommendation. "I eat it at least once every week," he promised. I can see why. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, cut in slender strips and admirably cooked medium rare, tossed with lightly caramelized onions and sprinkled with crunchy chopped peanuts. A cup of the house version of nuoc nam was served on the side, tasty but disappointingly tame. "You really don't need that stuff," suggested our waiter, sotto voce. "Try it first without it." He was right again: The beef alone was delicious, garlicky and salty, but strangely not lemony. I simply couldn't taste lemon or even lemongrass. "Oh, we just make up those names in English; we call them whatever we think sounds good," he explained cheerfully. "They don't really mean anything." Ah.
Since our party was still arguing over who'd eaten the lion's share of the duck appetizer, we decided to order more. The entrée version of the roasted duck ($9.95) was an unexpected bargain for half a rotisserie-roasted bird, plenty for sharing; besides, more of that drinkable dipping sauce came with it. By the end of the meal we'd experimentally dunked just about everything into that sauce, including the thick, cold cucumber slices and julienned raw carrots that filled out the duck's platter.
The chicken clay pot ($12.95) turned out to be more about form than content, sad to say. It arrived steaming in an impressive earthenware pot, but inside the ceramic lurked an uninspiring amalgam of mostly rice and not enough chicken or vegetables. I could identify -- just barely -- traces of ginger and maybe a shred or two of cilantro, but the mixture paled to insignificance compared to the drama of the duck and lemon beef. And near as I could figure, the description of the rather ordinary rice as "special risotto" was another example of promotional phraseology. But it was a pleasant enough dish, and my friend who ordered it was quite content.
None of us was happy with the shrimp curry ($8.95), though. I'd hoped for a thick, soundly spiced version, something closer to Thai than Indian renditions. Vietopia's curry looked good on the plate, a jumble of shrimp and dried mushrooms and glass noodles, the sauce a pretty saffron-yellow juiced up with sweet coconut cream, but one bite proved it thin and insipid. A curry lacking personality is pointless. The sight of the slighted curry cooling on its plate made our ever-attentive waiter anxious. "Do you want to take that home?" he asked. "No," we answered, rudely in unison.
When Vietopia opened, its dessert options were ambitious, too, though hardly what could be called authentic. One friend reported an excellent chocolate mousse; another early visitor tried an improbable tiramisu. Since then, though, the choices have been scaled back to simple dishes of ice cream. "People didn't seem to want those fancy desserts," our waiter told us, sounding slightly hurt. "So we don't have them anymore."
The encouraging implication is that the menu is still in its formative stages and the kitchen is open to suggestion. For now, this much is clear: Vietopia is off to a good start, with the potential to turn out some top-notch dishes. I imagine that the sexy space and excellent service will be a hit with the first-date crowd, and the toned-down fare isn't too risky for suits with expense accounts. But once the menu matches its elegant surroundings, grows into its room, so to speak, it really could be utopia.
Vietopia,5176 Buffalo Speedway, (713)664-7303.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.