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Authentic Vietnamese fare comes to Watertown

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Lotus Restaurant opened recently in Price Chopper Plaza, serving traditional Vietnamese cuisine. It takes its place alongside the Apollo Greek restaurant and the Daily Buffet Chinese restaurant, making it three in a row of ethnic eateries in this unprepossessing strip mall.

Despite the mundane exterior, the interior of the Lotus is spotlessly polished and inviting. Booths line the walls and there are tables in the center — simple yet sturdy furniture. There’s a warm, dark-red-and-cream color scheme with a smattering of art prints on the walls, though the lighting is still rather bright.

We were able to glimpse into the kitchen, confirming an organized space and clean working area with several Asian cooks awaiting orders. At the same end of the room, a large TV mounted high on one wall was tuned to ESPN, but thankfully the sound was turned down, allowing the sound of inoffensive canned music to quietly permeate the dining room.

Each table is equipped with a selection of bottles and jars of sauces and condiments — sweet hoisin sauce, spicy chili paste and sriracha hot sauce. Containers of chopsticks and ceramic soup spoons are on each table, but regular knives, forks and spoons were provided by our waitress.

The menu is short and fairly simple, each dish named in both English and Vietnamese and clearly explained. There are five traditional appetizers and three categories of main courses: pho, a kind of soup with noodles and beef or chicken, steamed rice plates (com dia) and vermicelli bowls (bun).

A liquor license is pending. Hot tea was our beverage of choice for the evening.

We started with three of the appetizers: spring rolls (goi cuon, $3.99), rice cakes (banh beo, $5.75) and a Vietnamese crepe (banh xeo, $6.75).

Two large spring rolls were served with a generous bowl of peanut dipping sauce. The freshly made rolls, containing shrimp, pork, shredded lettuce and clear noodles in transparent rice wraps, were light and delicious, with a pleasant crunchiness that contrasted nicely with the thick peanut sauce. Simple and traditional.

Homemade nuoc mam sauce was also served, a simple dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, chilies and finely shredded carrot. Very traditional and executed very well.

Rice cakes were dramatically presented in eight small bowls on a large platter, with a large bowl of nuoc mam sauce to accompany them. The rice cakes were made from a steamed rice flour batter and topped with tiny pieces of shrimp and scallions.

They were impossible to eat with chopsticks, but fortunately the manager came by and showed us how to pour the sauce on each cake and then use a spoon to cut the cake and eat it. Interesting textures, almost gelatin-like, that definitely needed the sauce for flavor. We also experimented with the other sauces and condiments on the table.

The crepe was extremely large, overflowing the plate it was served on. It was made from a light pancake batter filled with shrimp, pork, shredded lettuce and cucumber, served with more of the nuoc mam sauce.

Vietnamese crepes are sometimes served with lettuce leaves and eaten by wrapping pieces of the crepe in the leaves. In this variation, the crepe itself had lettuce inside. It had a pleasant, crisp exterior and a tender, juicy interior. Despite its generous size, every morsel was devoured by the four of us.

It was very plainly seasoned, which is the norm. This gives the diner the opportunity to use the sauces provided on the table.

The only thing missing was mung bean sprouts. They are an important flavor and texture component in Vietnamese cuisine, and should have been in the crepe as well as the spring rolls. The manager seemed to have overheard us commenting and came by to apologize for the lack of them.

Perhaps the most recognized Vietnamese dish is pho (pronounced “fuh”). To test our young Caucasian waitress, we asked her how pho was pronounced, and she nailed it!

Pho is a traditional noodle dish, consisting of meat and rice noodles served in a bowl of clear broth flavored with onion, ginger and star anise. Accompaniments served with pho to be added by the diner include basil, bean sprouts, wedges of lime and jalapenos.

We ordered two versions, pho thap cam — beef broth with sliced beef, beef meatballs and brisket — and pho ga, chicken stock with chicken white meat. “Small” bowls are $7.45; large bowls are $8.45. We ordered the smaller size which proved large enough to make a satisfying meal.

The well-done brisket and eye round steak were nicely seasoned and marinated, and the beef balls (the typically chewy Vietnamese version held together by potato starch) were especially fresh-tasting. There was plenty of beef and lots of noodles.

Chicken pho was a little blander, but contained a decent amount of meat and noodles. Judicious use of the condiment bottles and jars easily spiced it up, however, along with the fresh basil and good squeeze of lime. We did miss the sprouts, though.

The most important component of pho is the broth. Bones are simmered for hours along with vegetables and spices for richness and depth of flavor. Clarity of the broth is also important, as it needs to be made in several important steps.

The day we visited, the clarity of the homemade stock was not outstanding, but the flavor certainly was excellent. Have you had soup in Asian restaurants that tasted like dishwater? This was not that. And anyway, when’s the last time you tasted dishwater?

A steamed rice plate with shrimp (com tom nuong, $7.65) was lackluster compared to the pho. A large plate had a large mound of long grain rice all by itself with a pile of fairly small tail-on shrimp next to it. The shrimp were grilled and quite tasty, but all in all, this was a very plain dish.

However, the charbroiled pork vermicelli bowl with fried egg rolls (bun thit nuong cha gio, $8.65) was a highlight. The texture of the vermicelli was great, a fish sauce-based sauce (nuoc ma mot) was provided, which is standard, and it was excellent.

The vegetables in the bowl were fresh, which is also essential. The flavor of the marinated pork, along with texture and temperature were just right, too. The egg roll that we feared was a commercial product proved to be made in-house and was excellent — crab, shrimp, vegetables and noodles in crispy fried shell. Of course, we had a good time customizing the “bun” with the various sauces.

There are no desserts on the menu, but we did order Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50). This is a strong coffee, like espresso, made in little individual filter baskets that are brought to the table, then mixed with sweet condensed milk and poured over ice.

A banana smoothie ($3.50) was thick and just sweet enough, almost as though they’d blended the banana with vanilla ice cream. We weren’t quite adventurous enough to try the avocado smoothie. Next time.

Dinner for four cost $69.35 before tip. Quite a value, we all felt.

The Lotus is definitely a step above most of the other more basic local Asian restaurants. The food is entirely made from scratch, wholesome, tasty and nicely presented — and reasonably priced.

The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Water glasses were kept filled at all times, just in case a novice customer mistook the Huy Fong sriracha for Heinz ketchup.

Though not as comprehensive in its offerings as a typical Vietnamese restaurant in a bigger city, its smaller menu makes it easier to consistently offer good-quality dishes and easier for patrons who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese food.

TIDBITS

There are some new things on the menu at Café Mira, fine dining in downtown Adams, that are worth stopping by to try.

Lobster and crab mac and cheese makes for a great fall (or any season) comfort food.

Filet Mira is a choice center-cut filet mignon topped with lobster and crab and a truffle cream sauce. Scallops Sharon, named for the chef-owner’s mother, utilizes scallops with pancetta, spinach and tomatoes in a garlic cream sauce over basmati rice.

In addition to the regular menu, there’s now a special bistro menu on Wednesday nights, “wine night,” with Kobe beef or tenderloin sliders and several flatbreads (the one with caramelized onions, Gorgonzola and a balsamic reduction sounds yummy).

And every day you can get oyster shooters, raw oysters in a shot glass with cocktail sauce and chilled house-infused chilled pepperoncini vodka.

Café Mira is open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.







Lotus Restaurant

1283 Arsenal St.

in Price Chopper Plaza

Watertown, N.Y.

788-3888



An independently-owned Vietnamese restaurant — in Watertown!



HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week



APPETIZER PICKS: Spring rolls, Vietnamese crepe



MAIN COURSE PICKS: Chicken pho, beef pho (with sliced beef, beef balls and brisket), vermicelli bowl with charbroiled pork and egg rolls



DESSERT PICKS: Espresso with condensed milk and ice, banana smoothie



RATING: 3½ forks

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