107 Ponsonby Rd
Ph (09) 376 6107
Verdict: Approximately Vietnamese.
Vietnamese restaurants in Auckland are like buses: you wait ages for one and then a whole bunch arrive at once.
There's a well-established expatriate Vietnamese community here, yet Vietnamese restaurants have always been scarce. In Otahuhu I've eaten indifferent Chinese dishes with Vietnamese names and in the cheap Hansan restaurants, menu items like Hainanese chicken and Yangchow fried rice do not inspire confidence.
The game changed with the opening of Parkside in Mt Albert -- which I thought had slipped a little on a recent visit -- and Cafe Viet in Surrey Cres, which is deservedly packed each night.
So this place, which opened on the Ponsonby strip on Tuesday, needs to do something to stand out from the crowd -- including the pan-Indochinese Mekong Baby. And on the evidence so far, it is not doing so.
Owner David Dau, a Hanoi native who owns CAC in Mt Eden and just sold Occam in Grey Lynn, has put thought into the design -- dark walls with stylised palm trees; parquet flooring (perilously slippery); hanging forests of bamboo lampshades.
But details jar. The door, wide open in welcome, freezes the privates off diners. The (Chinese-inspired) willow pattern crockery is too big (or the tables too small) so plate-bearing waitresses waited expectantly while we reorganised to make room. (The waiting staff were also without personality or warmth; awkwardness can be excused as early nerves, but abruptness cannot).
Chef David Gao, who has worked extensively in hotels in Asia, has been described as "award-winning", which stretches a point: he came second in a competition in Vietnam in 2010. But the simple fact is that his food is only moderately good and some is poor.
His pho, that classic beef noodle soup that is the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, was bland and featureless, crying out for bean sprouts and herbs, and was rescued only by liberal use of a version of a nuoc cham-like vinegary sauce with chunks of garlic and chilli.
We opened with two of the "small plate" options: nem gio re, the variation on spring rolls called net rolls after the lacy pastry; and the bahn goi, fried dumplings in the north Vietnamese style. Both were pleasingly crisp, without traces of their frying and the former in particular, filled with tofu, taro and glass ear mushrooms, quite delicious.
A "crips" aubergine dish was certainly not crisp, if that was the intention: an oily batter, like tempura made in a fish and chip cart at Brighton, was dreadful. The taste of the aubergine was barely perceptible and the "sweet and sour" was like the thick soy sauce Indonesians call kecap manis.
The high point was a duck leg skin stuffed with a fragrant and aromatic mince of the bird's flesh made with herbs and mung beans. It was lovely and wintry and owed something to the French influence hinted at in the restaurant's name.
Professional duty forced me to try desserts despite my long-held belief that if you travel east of India, you should not eat dessert until you reach Mexico. A mango sago custard was like something you get in hospital and the flames on the crepes charred the edges of the pile of shredded coconut, lending the whole a scent of a morning-after ashtray.
This is way ahead of the McViet places we have become accustomed to, but it hasn't exactly hit the ground running.