As I walked through the tunnelish hallway to Saigon Bistro—flanked on either side by shops displaying the works of local artisans—I marveled at the new space. Located off Front Street in downtown Wilmington, it housed previous occupants like the boisterous Rum Runners, the late unlamented Smoke and of course Marrakesh (more famous for its owner absconding in the wee hours of the morning with money which more rightly belonged to his staff and vendors). Now, the smaller dining room bears the imprimatur of previous tenants. The look is somewhat more elegant, but looks aren’t everything. Most importantly, Saigon Bistro offers a superior dining experience to any of its predecessors. It should outlast all of them combined by a lot of years.
I saddled up to the bar and ordered crab fried rice upon my first visit. I admit to being a touch disappointed by the imitation meat on the plate. I don’t have any bias against imitation crab; I rather like it, in fact. I also like to know what I’m getting, and I expected crab.
The first bite pleased enough, but it was missing something. As if he could read my thoughts, my waiter asked if I’d like to see the spice rack. Moments later he emerged from the kitchen with five spicy sauces, and a detailed explanation of each one’s ingredients and relative spiciness. I opted for a garlic sauce, applied it gingerly, and took a second bite. Garlic made the dish pop. The rich, eggy rice came to life, coupled with the briny kani, and mixed with the pungent garlic and oil. The still-crisp stir-fried onions gave an additional sweetness and lovely texture. The fried rice tasted good on its own, but the hint of garlic added tableside made it one for the ages.
During a return trip to Saigon Bistro, I was wiser. I placed an order for Vietnamese pancakes, Mongolian beef and the spice rack. I was eager to try the Thai chili sauce, and I always welcome Sriracha. The Vietnamese pancakes were a messy delight—a combination of rice flour, bean sprouts, onion, scallions, carrots, basil, shrimp, jícama, and cilantro. Though meant to be wrapped by slices of romaine lettuce and drizzled with a mild fish sauce, anyone who has gone carb-free and eaten this entrée knows it isn’t the easiest taco shell to manage. Still, it’s worth ordering. The shrimp in particular had excellent flavor and the textural distinctions, from the soft pancake, to the crisp vegetables, to the firm romaine.
The Mongolian beef—long a favorite of mine—was full-flavored, yet balanced by subtlety. Though the menu boasts jalapeño, I found it not at all spicy (at least not ‘til I got a little Thai chili sauce in the mix). Rather, the beef came elegantly prepared in a brown sauce with onions and peppers. Though diners are given an option, my waiter recommended the jasmine rice on the side and he was dead-on. The subtle hints of the Thai-fragrant rice made a nice counterpoint to the heady brown sauce.
I made one final visit—hoping for a quick bite at an off-hour before making an appointment. I settled in for the five-spice tenderloin with Asian mushrooms. (Five spices often contain star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds.) I was greeted quickly with a salad of fresh field greens and a ginger-peanut dressing. Fresh lettuce always will be the unsung hero of many a great salad; quite a bit of care went into selecting these greens. The nutty dressing, with just a touch of spicy ginger, is a million dollar idea if anyone wants to put it in a bottle. Just one quibble: As the waittress took my plate, she asked me to keep my fork. Saigon Bistro is just too good a restaurant not to offer a salad fork. During three visits, it really is my only complaint: In a dining room with only five patrons, myself included, my rare filet mignon took just over half an hour to arrive. I’ve praised the care the chef had taken with other dishes, but that’s a touch extreme.
My hurry notwithstanding, the tenderloin remained worth the wait. Several breeds of earthy mushrooms brought out the flavor of the fork-cut tender filet. And the smashed sweet potato was unlike any other I’ve ever tried. It’s consistency is reminiscent of stone-ground grits,
Desserts are heavily French-influenced, and I couldn’t pass up the chocolate trilogy. A napoleon of white, milk and dark chocolate mousses added perfect texture and consistency. The trilogy worked beautifully on the tongue. No one style of chocolate overpowered another.
The Saigon Bistro is an excellent eatery in a very crowded downtown field. But if my first few trips are any indication, it will soon be known amongst the best options in the neighborhood. I plan to work my way through most of the menu. I doubt I’ll be the only one.
21 N Front Street • 910-769-2628