As everybody knows by now, the Internets have changed the world of restaurant reviewing. With every site from Google on down offering a way for patrons to comment on an eatery, there was really nobody to blame but myself when I recently ended up with the worst Chinese carryout I have ever had the misfortune of trying to eat, purchased from Great China on Sherman Avenue. After poking at it for a while, I decided I couldn't even give it to my dogs...and it was a situation I could have avoided if I had just checked the online buzz about this place, which throughout 2010 has been pretty excoriating.
Conversely, it was online chatter that propelled me over to Monona Drive to try the new Lee Asian Bistro, located near Monona Grove High School. Since it opened this year, early customer reviews, while mixed, leaned to the positive - and indicated that some dishes, particularly the Vietnamese pho, showed promise.
The large menu is divided into three main sections: American Chinese restaurant standards, an eight-item Thai area and a 25-item Vietnamese column. There are also a handful of house specials listed only on a card placed on the table. The dining room is pleasant and up-to-date (like a Chinese restaurant as envisioned by the West Elm catalog) and the food comes on white square plates, another pleasant contempo touch.
I'll start with the spring roll appetizer, two huge rolls with wrappers straining to contain three large shrimp, chicken, cilantro, mint and rice noodles. Downside, there was not enough of the accompanying peanut sauce for the two rolls. Also, the rather large chunks of cilantro might have been de-stemmed.
From the Vietnamese menu, the Bún Bò Hué, "hot and spicy rice noodle soup with sliced beef," was enough for two, with a suitably rich beef broth but ungainly slabs of beef. Further examination revealed two varieties of beef - tender slices from a brisket-type roast, and much thinner, leathery slices as if from cold cuts. The former: good. The latter: stick with the former. The soup comes adorned with noodles, fresh mint, sliced jalapenos and mung bean sprouts.
There are 14 other versions of pho on the menu, 13 with beef (including steak, flank, tripe, tendon and beef ball) and one with chicken. The pho broth was lighter, with a hint of star anise, perhaps, and arrived with lime, cilantro, basil and ngo gai ("long coriander").
The Bún thit nuong cha giò, or rice noodle with grilled pork tenderloin and egg rolls, was also a yin-yang mix of hot and cold and good and bad. The egg roll was textbook, crispy with a fine filling of ground pork. The pork "tenderloin," however, was fried to a taffylike chewiness. The rest of the dish - a pile of cilantro, lettuce and more rice noodles - didn't hold much interest.
On the Chinese menu, the Kung Pao Four Delight also had its ups and downs. The large scallops were meltingly tender, but the beef was low-grade. Overall the dish had decent heat, but didn't adequately draw the flavors from its component delights of shrimp, chicken, scallops and beef (although I did like that it was less greasy than usual versions of this dish).
Over to the Thai side. The green curry with chicken featured a terrific coconut-milk sauce that packed a luscious burn. It was soupier than I'm used to from a curry dish, but admittedly the menu does describe it as "chicken in a creamy coconut soup." The Thai eggplant was underdone, and there were big chunks of galangal floating around. And by "big," I mean I mistook them for potato halves. Galangal, a flavoring similar to ginger, is lovely, but mistaking it for something you might actually eat is not something you want to do. I'd love this curry if its protein components were augmented (and cooked through), giving it a little bit more spine.
If you've been ordering pad thai elsewhere and lamenting an overabundance of noodle to your protein, here the balance is way to the other side - plentiful fried egg, chicken, beef and shrimp, with much less sauce and noodle.
Vegetarians will be looking at three run-of-the-mill items: Vegetarian's Delight (mellow and satisfying, with a light brown sauce), House Vegetable Deluxe and tofu with vegetables, although the fact that the restaurant recently hosted a dinner for the Madison Vegetarian Meetup Group indicates the kitchen may be willing to branch out on request.
From the more adventuresome house specials menu (the one on the tables), just the pungent papaya salad was available - no kung pao chicken innards, no Hmong sausage with sticky rice, no Shanghai lumpia or spicy chicken feet or pork uteri in black bean sauce.
Friends, I'd tell you what uteri is - if my Internet connection wasn't down.