The premises at 462 New North Rd are a testament to the unquenchable optimism of the human spirit. They have been home to at least five restaurants in the past decade: Fish, Tabou, Arthur Avenue, Blunderbuss and Loop. Presumably this quick turnover explains why the new occupant's Facebook page contains disobliging feedback that is actually about Loop, though says it's about Saigon. It doesn't explain why their web page is still "under construction", though at least they now have a menu on their Facebook page.
They've gussied up the place with a bit of art and an indoor tree in which perches an irritating electronic bird that cheeps in response to loud noises.
First impressions were not encouraging: the service was casual to a fault, though the Professor, who works with young people, tells me they would regard it as chilled. A waitress passed by and asked how everything was but did not break stride long enough to hear my response, which was to ask for another spoon.
"This place won't last, either," grumped the Professor, whose apparently limitless expertise extends to the hospo business, but the enthusiastic Vietnamese chap working the floor made her later withdraw the comment and she brightened up when the food arrived.
It's all Vietnamese in the kitchen: the chefs, imported especially, include a chap with experience in luxury hotels, which is typically where fancy restaurants are found in Asia. This presumably explains the treatment of the big tiger prawns, wrapped in a lattice of julienned potato, like a bird's nest; it's a piece of fussiness no streetside diner in Vietnam would recognise, but the effect was pleasing.
Less successful was the pho - the beef noodle soup by which a Vietnamese restaurant should be judged. It was a perfect balance of rare and slow-cooked beef, but pho is meant to be accompanied by a massive bowl of herbs: the only one here was coriander, it was already stirred in and there was precious little of it.
The intriguingly named "abalone cakes" were little paua sausages, dense with flavour; the tofu eggplant was agreeably spicy, though the eggplant was overcooked to rags, doubtless deliberately, but the texture was unpleasant. The goat hotpot, though tasty, seemed to hail from somewhere well west of Indochina, and toasting could not disguise the poor quality of a stale baguette.
A salad of prawn and green mango never made it to the table, which was a shame because it sounded great, but we shared a lovely lychee panna cotta, on a bed of lychee jelly, even if the parfait glass it came in was exquisitely hideous.
There's a lot of good Vietnamese food in Auckland these days and Saigon serves some of it, but the presentation (too much mixed greens, already) could do with livening up if this place is to compete at the top level. Still, Kingsland dining is getting better and better.
Small $12.50-$18; big $6-50-$26.50; salads $18-$19.50; desserts $12.
VERDICT: Hazy service mars some good, if not startlingly original, cooking.