Karaoke and sports bars are not uncommon down the long stretch of Bellaire in Chinatown. What is uncommon is one that serves delicious, well-presented, high-quality dishes in an ambiance you wouldn't expect from the area. After a rather disappointing meal at Wild Cajun, a friend mentioned a new bar, Vibe Lounge, down the street on Wilcrest in the same shopping center as Nam Giao, a new favorite of mine. Since Vibe only opened in November, I hadn't noticed it before. I wasn't expecting much but your run-of-the-mill karaoke bar, so what I got was a definite surprise.
The space itself is very modern. A large, mirrored bar catches your eye as you walk in, and dark tables are paired with tall, white-leather chairs. The surrounding flat screen TVs and massive projector screen showing football games and ESPN evoke the sports bar side, while the dim lighting and upbeat music brings about the lounge feel. This could definitely be a candidate for a "non bro" sports bar. If the space alone was surprising, the food was a shock.
The menu is a mix of fresh seafood -- like the Alaskan lobster and crab that were swimming in the large tanks -- sushi, and traditional foods known as Do An Nhau, which loosely translates to "foods to enjoy while drinking and socializing." There are some exciting offerings for the more adventurous eaters, such as salt and pepper duck tongue, goat curry, grilled wild hog with garlic and spices and geoduck sashimi.
As we sat down at the table, our friends were happily eating the Thai Hot Pot ($30). The rich smells of lemongrass made me forget I had just eaten, and I had to taste it. The spicy broth was indeed flavorful, and unlike at some places, this was definitely "Thai"-spiced. The actual pot the soup came in was unique in that it had a flat edge around it so that you could cook the fresh shrimp, mussels and squid to your liking and take it out so that it wouldn't over-cook. Served on the side was rice noodles to eat with the broth and fish sauce with Thai chiles for dipping.
A dozen fresh oysters ($20) came to the table next, dressed with ponzu and smelt roe. The Gulf oysters were fresh, plump and juicy, with the perfect touch of citrus, and the wasabi masago added the right kick.
Bo Tai Chanh ($17) and Tom Tai Chanh ($18) were the highlights of the night -- rare beef and shrimp marinated in lime sauce, respectively. Bo Tai Chanh is like Vietnamese carpaccio. At most places the beef is slightly cooked and finished with lime, but here the freshness and high quality of both the beef and shrimp is apparent, as the beef is served much rarer and the shrimp is sushi-quality. The only cooking done is by the acid from the limes. The presentation of both dishes is visually appealing but also lends to the flavors of the dishes -- the beef is served on a bed of raw shredded spinach stalks, adding a crunch and a hint of sweetness, and the shrimp is served with fresh mint and diep ga (fish mint), which complement each other perfectly.
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The Muc Rang Muoi, or salt-toasted squid ($18), a dish that can be found at most Vietnamese restaurants, was addicting. The squid was lightly battered and sauteed with onions, garlic and fresh jalapeno -- each bite was meaty, crunchy, buttery, salty and spicy.
I had an opportunity to chat with the owner, Duy Khanh Le, who told me that his inspiration for opening Vibe Lounge was to create an establishment in the Bellaire area with a whole new vibe, an upscale place where people could still be comfortable and, above all, enjoy really good food. And he's definitely been able to accomplish that.