With the exception of Japanese, not a lot of locally owned Asian restaurants aspire toward the upscale or the chic. For the adventurous diners who populate these restaurants, that’s generally just fine. Simple décor and no-nonsense service typically mean you don’t have to think about a reservation, and you can sample things from all over the menu, stuffing yourself on the cheap. It’s almost a badge of honor among some foodies to find the grimiest, cheapest hole in the wall where the food is still superb.
A whole fried tilapia in a tangy tamarind sauce ($14.95)
Sometimes, however, you want a side of elegance to go with your lemongrass chicken or your stir-fried beef. You want a waitress who doesn’t disappear with your bill or a tablecloth that doesn’t stick to your elbows, even if you aren’t supposed to have them on the table in the first place. You want a little color, a little attention to décor, a waitstaff both knowledgeable and forthcoming with suggestions. In short, you want an experience, not merely sustenance. This is just the philosophy of Timmy Nguyen and Diana Phan, who in July opened their vibrant but still quite casual Viet Bistro in the erstwhile home of some quite good but short-lived Asian restaurants at 86th and Allisonville Road. The couple has transformed the location into a warm, airy space bathed in oranges and reds with low-slung woven bamboo chairs and plenty of eye-catching paintings of East Asian life. Sturdy chopsticks come in paper sheaths with the restaurant’s artful logo, and the presentation of dishes is a note higher than our average strip-mall Asian eatery. If you’re smart, you’ll get Diana to be your waitress. As mischievous and clever as she is affable and informative, she’ll steer you toward the best dishes on the menu, explaining how they’d be made in Vietnam and how they’ve prepared them with a much lighter touch and the freshest ingredients they can get. She’ll assure you that staples like seafood are delivered at least every other day, that they tend not to freeze things, that they don’t have a lick of pork fat in the back. Fresh fish won’t be fried in lard the way it might be back in Saigon. Unfortunately, the commitment to freshness means that dishes ordered infrequently soon disappear off the menu. We wrangled a bit with a list of appetizers and entrees filled with redlined items eliminated from lack of popularity. No longer available is an appetizer platter with five different items or a whole steamed fish with dill. Thus, if you want your favorite dish to stick around, order it early and often. Appetizers that are available, however, are quite good, especially their version of soft spring rolls ($3.95). Available at most Vietnamese restaurants, these plump, fresh rolls stuffed with vermicelli, shrimp and herbs were gorgeous little packages here. A sweet, creamy peanut sauce on the side was a touch spicier with a heavier drizzle of chili oil than at many places. An unusual and hearty plate of baby clams ($7.95) came mixed with ground peanuts, onions and curry. Light-as-air fried rice cakes provided some auditory delight, popping and sizzling when we scooped up piles of the flavorful clam concoction. Asparagus and crab soup ($3.95) was almost too straightforward, with thick cuts of asparagus and scant flakes of crab in a salty broth. Entrées include everything from familiar stir-fried dishes with rice to noodles, seafood specialties and main dish soups. Pork with black pepper ($8.95) offered tender cuts of pork loin with plenty of onions and a piquant dusting of pepper. This made a nice light supper with a side of aromatic jasmine rice and a vegetable garnish that doubled as a small salad. A dish of pan-fried noodles ($8.95) with chicken and vegetables in a light brown sauce was reminiscent of pad Thai. Definitely the most visually rich dish of the evening was a whole fried tilapia in a tangy tamarind sauce ($14.95). Tender flakes of fish came easily off the bone with plenty of crisp but not greasy skin. We hardly noticed the scales and fins. Only dessert left us wondering if our palates just weren’t in tune with authentic flavor combinations. Banana fritters seemed a good idea, but a rice flour batter was more salty than sweet, and a viscous tapioca sauce, also unsweetened, came with a slightly bitter bite of toasted sesame seeds. Not that we needed chocolate cake or a banana split, but this wasn’t exactly refreshing to our American taste buds. Vietnamese food has for several years now been one of Indy’s most prominent international cuisines. While Viet Bistro does some things the others do, they don’t pack their menu with more familiar Chinese dishes. They’re committed to healthy cooking techniques, and they provide a setting casual enough for a quick lunch and fashionable enough for a romantic dinner or a special occasion with friends. VIET BISTRO 4763 E. 86th St. 598-1899 HOURS: Tuesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9 p.m. Saturday: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Food : 3.5 Stars Atmosphere : 4 Stars Service : 4 Stars