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[MSP] Ngon - Did Dara (City Pages) and I eat at the same restaurant?

Went to Ngon on University Ave last night based on Dara's (City Pages) glowing review of Ngon's pho noodle soup. Besides the fact that the decor was a great improvement from the previous restaurant that was there and the occasional flashes of potential, the whole experience was a disapppointment. Quality ingredients, poor flavoring....

We started out ordering the spring rolls - this was a sublime dish which led us to hope that this was a precursor of great things to come. The spring rolls were fried to perfection -little crunchy bites with flakey layers and the filling was moist and fresh. Filling ingredients were chopped consistently so that each bite yielded bits of ground pork, carrot, cabbage and noodle.

Unfortunately, then things started to go downhill from there. First, the pho noodle soup that Dara ranted and raved out. I knew it was a bad sign when the waitress brought out the basil, bean spout side plate - the 1 stalk of basil was wilted - no scent at all. Bean sprouts were browning on the edges and the lime slices were drying out. Then 20 minutes later, the pho noodle soup arrives. (normally, pho is brought out within 5 minutes of ordering). The noodle soup that Dara describes as "potent, hauntingly spiced and sweet, rich and beefy brown, onion-touched and herbal, peppery and anise-scented" was a salty thin broth with none of the subtle touches of cinnamon, cilantro, sliced onion and anise with a clear beef flavor that I've come to expect at places like Pho Ca Dao, Que Nha or Quang's. The soup tasted more like an oversalted commercial beef flavored canned broth finished with a touch of green onions. The noodles sat in a congealed pile at the bottom and the fact that the one sprig of basil added no additional flavor didn't help matters. On the plus side, the slices of beef (I got the same multi-beef pho dac biet that Dara mentions in her article) were better than some of the cheaper cuts that I've seen in other pho soups. The beef meatballs which I tend to avoid tasted like they were home made and their tripe was cut into small portions. I ate most of the meat and only 1/3 of the noodles. Couldn't stomach the salty broth.

The other dish my partner ordered was the com tam (broken rice) dish with the grilled pork and fried egg. First of all, our experience with grilled pork rice dishes in Vietnamese restaurants (Que Nha, Quang, Bo Bien, Trieu Chau) is that the pork is marinated in a sauce and then grilled so that it comes out smokey and each bite of pork reflects the deep marinade. This dish had the pork with the requisite grill marks but was topped off by this sweet teriyaki commercial sauce that my partner said reminded him of "food court Chinese food". It was terrible. In fact, he wouldn't finish it. Pluses: the rice itself was fresh.

Restaurant decor: the decor is beautiful. It's definitely a step up for the Vietnamese restaurant scene.

Service: as other posts have mentioned, service is slow for a Vietnamese restaurant. It's not a place to have a quick weekday dinner. The place wasn't too busy - only 4 tables occupied. I'd hate to see what would happen if they were even half full - given that our dishes are considered Vietnamese fast food, a 20 minute wait for noodles and rice was excessive.

Presentation: the presentation of the dishes is a notch above those you get at the other Vietnamese restaurants. However, taste needs to accompany the presentation....

Ingredients: care has gone into the selection of the ingredients used in the dishes - the overly salty broth, disgustingly sweet and commercial teriyaki sauce on the pork and wilted basil nonewithstanding.

We felt like we ate at a different restaurant than the one that Dara raved about. We were hoping to be able to add Ngon to our list of Vietnamese restaurants that we frequent but unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. Perhaps we hit it on a bad night but if our experience was an indicator, I fear for the longevity of Ngon.

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  1. Wow--my experiences have been very different than yours. I'm not saying that every dish at Ngon is a hit, because there are a few misses, but I didn't find the broth in the pho salty at all. I've only tried it once, so, who knows, I'm hardly an expert. The com tam we ordered was fantastic--one of my favorite dishes at Ngon.

    Maybe you and I were eating at different restaurants. ;-) Sorry you had such a bad experience.

    ~TDQ

    1. It's not just me! Thank you for this!

      The broth has been discussed before:

      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/381260

      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/420563

      I thought the broth's flavor was way too subtle. If only mine had been salty! I really think they have consistency issues, rather than overall quality issues. Many have went and loved the broth. I believe they had better broth than I did.

      1 Reply
      1. re: pgokey

        Yes, a couple of folks--including mnfoodie and pgokey-- have expressed disappointment with the pho--but I believe spahkee has been the first to report that he had the misfortune of the pho as being overly salty. For my part, I thought I'd tasted a "warm" spice upfront--maybe a hint of nutmeg or cinnamon, perhaps--with a slight hint of an after taste of star anise. If the dish were too salty, I don't know how I could have tasted those other hints of flavors. They were subtle to be sure.

        pgokey, thanks for those links to those other Ngon bistro pho discussions. I don't know if you're familiar with the "permalink" feature, but you can use that to take the person to the exact post in the thread where something specific is discussed, rather than just taking them to the top of the thread. If you haven't played with that feature yet, it's kinda fun. (Sorry, I'm nerdy that way, with a rather warped sense of "fun".) :) .

        For example, here's a couple of permalinks to the "disappointment" with Ngon Bistro's pho.

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/42056...
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/42056...

        I wonder if we're noticing inconsistencies with different chefs?

        By the way, it was the com tam (#41) broken rice with English cucumber, tomato and fish sauce on the side with marinated pork loin, shredded bbq pork, pork skin, and fried eggs (#41) that we tried that night that we enjoyed. It sounds like the same dish spahkee got. I only got a small taste of it though, so I don't know if I have enough "data" to comment forcefully on it. I didn't notice the teriyaki-like sauce or stale rice, though, in my tasting of the dish, and don't recall anyone else mentioning that. A "taste" is not the same as eating a full serving of it, though.

        But, I mispoke above--I did enjoy that #41 dish, but it was actually the bun tau hu (rice vermicelli with ginger glazed tofu, and fresh shitaki mushrooms) (#51) that I really loved and is one of my favorite dishes.

        My other favorites are the duck confit, sweet potato fritter, the ginger roasted chicken, the ginger creme brulee, and the mung bean cheesecakes. I think these dishes are all outstanding.

        ~TDQ

      2. The original comment has been removed
        1. OK finally tried Ngon last night. My experience follows. (My husbands thoughts are in parentheses.)

          Ambience was just lovely. ("")

          Service was excellent. We were very closely attended to, water glasses were always refilled promptly, we ordered three apps and an entree and they (of their own volition) coursed the meal for us AND split the entree for us. Friendly withouth being too chatty, to boot. Really, we were very impressed. ("")

          Now the important stuff:

          Lemongrass Beef Wraps: Super tender, with a sweet/savory glaze, served with lettuce leaves, rice noodles, and pickled carrot and (what? turnip? daikon?). I wished I could pick out more of the flavors in the beef seasonings - it was slightly one-dimensional. But really good for one-dimensional. (Husband loved these.)

          Shrimp pate wrapped around sugar cane. Hmm, isn't this the one Kathy Jenkins said was one of the best apps in town? I found it pleasant enough, but it sort of reminded me of a gussied up, shrimp-infused hot dog wrapped around the sugar cane. I guess the rubberiness was what turned me off. I'd definitely eat it any day, but I won't think about it while I'm away either. (Husband ate his portion, but agreed about the hot dog characteristic.)

          Duck confit - oh ducky ducky. . . this was fantastic. Super succulent, tender duck in a green, lightly coconutty, gingery, herby, wonderful brothy sauce, served with sliced of Vietnamese baguette (you know, it has that lightness and delicate crispiness to the crust). I could eat it all day long. (Husband didn't care much about this dish - he liked it OK but didn't see anything special about it.)

          Rice noodles with ginger glazed tofu - Thanks for the rec, TDQ. Really enjoyed this take on noddle salad - mixed greens with herbs topped with rice nodles topped with little pillows of tofu and the tenderest shiitakes. I'm so afraid of rubbery, tough shiitakes (have had stems passed off as edible way too many times) that I usualy avoid ordering them, but I knew TDQ wouldn't lead us astray. The gingery glaze worked very well with the tofu, but kept very nicely to itself - they didn't douse the whole salad with it or anything. And the herbiness of the greens, mixed with the noodles and some fish sauce was very pleasant and light.

          Vanilla mung bean cheesecake - wonderful. The crust incorporated a whole lot of toasty coconut. Now I like a pretty crisp crust on my cheesecake, and while I wouldn't say this one achieved crispness perfection, it was well on its way. Very nice. The cheesecake filling was not too sweet and was modestly flavored, and topped with more toasted coconut, which borught out the vanilla beautifully. (Husband is not at all a dessert fan. Really - I usually have to pressure him to eat a bite or two just so I dont' have to admit to eating the whole thing myself - he LOVED this and ate his whole half with no prodding!)

          Value: Excellent - all that food plus one (shared) beer came to just over $40. VERY reasonable considering the quality, the ambience, the service, and the quantity (not that portions are large, but we were both pretty stuffed by the time we left).

          In all, we really enjoyed our meal, and we're really glad that Ngon is an option in the hood! We'll probably continue to haunt Saigon much more frequently, but it's really nice to have another option - you know, the kind of place you can bring your mother in law and not worry that she'll be grossed out by the dirty floor.

          2 Replies
          1. re: diesel

            I'm glad you had a good experience! And, yes, Kathie Jenkins did rave about the sugar cane shrimp appetizer. I have to admit, I talked my dining companion into ordered that in lieu of the duck confit on my last visit. It was okay, but I would have rather had the duck confit. :) . I agree that the texture was a bit off-putting. I can't remember whether it was grote or foureyes--one of those folks, I think--said there was a better rendition of that shrimp dish out there in the Twin Cities: I wish I knew where because it still sounds intriguing.

            ~TDQ

            1. re: The Dairy Queen

              grote had noted that Quang's also served shrimp on sugar canes. We went to Pho Tau Bay for lunch today and noticed they had them there too. They have regular grilled shrimp on sugarcane as an appetizer and shrimp paste on sugar cane over rice noodles as an entree.

          2. It's interesting that there's such a yes-no experience at Ngon. I, too, wonder if they have a main chef and a not-so-good chef.

            Mr. Tastebud and I went last week - Monday, I think - and absolutely loved our food.

            We got the fabulous duck confit appetizer, which was really curried-coconut duck soup in a huge bowl. We ate half, and took the rest home (the leftovers were great). This dish is worth driving across town for, in my opinion.

            Mr. Tastebud got the marinated grilled chicken over cellophane noodes, and said he really liked it. I got one bite - it was great. The spices in the chicken were delicate yet pronounced, and the glaze was quite sweet (a good thing, in my book).

            Because I have learned to pay attention to menu tips from TDQ, I ordered the ginger-glazed tofu and shitaki mushrooms on cellophane noodles. Wow! Extremely yummy. The glaze was delicious and very, very sweet - just skirting the limit of what I like in a main dish. But I loved it. Thanks, TDQ!

            And, though I didn't order any wine, I love their wine list. It's full of food-friendly, Asian-dish-loving wines. Whoever picked out the wines really knows about pairing wine with Vietnamese food. I can't wait to go back when I'm not the designated driver.

            Anne