Ngon Bistro is a St. Paul institution at this point and I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to get around to reviewing it for the blog. It’s a bit of an anomaly in the Twin Cities in that it is a high-end Asian restaurant. The much newer Hai Hai is more casual, and the same was true of the recently shuttered Rabbit Hole too. I am not suggesting that Ngon Bistro is stuffy or formal; but in terms of menu format and prices, they are much closer to places like Spoon and Stable and Meritage. In other ways, Ngon Bistro is similar to the erstwhile Rabbit Hole in that they too seek to translate an Asian cuisine—in this case Vietnamese—into the menu formats and culinary idioms of mainstream American dining. Comparing our meals at the two places it’s easy to say that Ngon Bistro does it much better.
This wasn’t actually our first visit to Ngon Bistro. It had been recommended to us not long after we moved to the Twin Cities and we’d gone there for lunch (this was not too long after they’d first opened). We’d liked that meal okay but did not find the premium we paid then for pho etc. to be worth it for the quality relative to other more casual places on University Avenue. We were surprised to see that the restaurant has received a major makeover since then. Our server confirmed that the interior was redone dramatically about five years ago: it’s a hip space now, with lots of natural light (before the sun goes down) and anchored by a large bar with a selection of local brews and craft cocktails on offer (it also prominently displays a lot of vinyl). The tin (?) ceilings are not very good for the noise levels though. Bar seating is also available for meals. As to whether the dinner menu has changed formally, I do not know.
We were a party of four and had a table. While I’d had no difficulty finding a table for a Saturday evening just a few days previous, I’d recommend making a reservation for weekend nights. We ate early (6 pm) and the restaurant was quite full when we left. We ordered some cocktails while we made decisions about the food. Three of us got a cocktail apiece and one ordered their craft cocktail flight. The cocktails were good, on the whole, but some skewed a little too sweet. In the latter category was my MN Maple Manhattan, made with J. Carver Rye (from a local distillery) and house-made maple liqueur. It was tasty but would have been even better with a touch less maple syrupy sweetness. I might just get one of the local beers next time.
On to the food!
We ordered some appetizers to share:
- *Charcuterie: The platter included house cured Chinese sausage, Vietnamese duck terrine, “Wrath of Khan” sausage, wild boar sausage and a couple of cheeses. I could have taken or left the duck terrine (which didn’t taste particularly Vietnamese either) but the sausages were all very tasty.
- *Crispy rabbit dumpling: A fancy spring roll and it was very good indeed. The coconut curry it was sitting on was very good as well.
- *Fresh spring rolls: Perhaps the most traditional thing we ate and it was a very good take on the Vietnamese classic. It’s a large portion for one person to have as an appetizer though. Best to get it to share as we did
The mains were more of a mixed bag:
- *Southern bo kho: I thought this was the pick of this round and very good indeed. I don’t know enough to say where this falls on the bo kho spectrum—the only other versions I’ve had (for example, at Trieu Chau) have been quite different. But this was robust and elegant all at once and serving it on grits is an inspired choice.
- *Scallop & risotto: The scallops were done well and the lemongrass and lobster risotto was done well too.
- *Wild boar & soba: This was mine and frankly I thought it was just about acceptable. The soba was a bit too clumpy and the mushroom cream sauce didn’t make much of an impression. The wild boar sausage was good but we’d already had that on the charcuterie plate.
- *Curry trout: This was the missus’s and it was also a bit of a disappointment. The fish was cooked well but there was no discernible curry flavour of any kind and the ground cherry chutney atop the fish was too sweet and dominated proceedings.
And so to dessert, of which we shared a couple:
- *Coconut strawberry flan: A little dense but tasty enough. Not sure what happened to the billed strawberry garnish though (there were some squiggles of strawberry sauce on the plate).
- *Ginger creme brulee: The influence of the ginger was mild bordering on the imperceptible but this was tasty enough.
Take a look at this slideshow of images of the space and the food and scroll down for thoughts on service, overall quality and value.
As you can probably tell, this is not a traditional Vietnamese menu. I wouldn’t quite call it fusion, however; more like cooking with a Vietnamese accent. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t squarely familiar Vietnamese dishes on the menu: in addition to the rabbit dumplings and spring rolls we ordered, the menu features pho (including with oxtail), bun and a rice bowl. On the whole, however, the menu seems to skew towards the use of Vietnamese flavours and ingredients to re-conceive non-Vietnamese dishes in some cases (see the risotto) or towards presenting Vietnamese dishes in more hybrid guises (see the southern bo kho). While we didn’t like everything we ate a lot, I’d say the hit rate was pretty good. I’d go back just to eat the rabbit dumpling and the bo kho again.
Service was friendly but increasingly frazzled. It took a while to get our orders in and our very nice server seemed a bit over-extended (in addition to the misplaced appetizer we were also given somebody else’s much smaller check at the end of the evening). The vibe though is friendly and welcoming. The tariff is not unfriendly either. Before tip the total came to $206, which is pretty good for the Twin Cities. On the whole, I’d recommend Ngon Bistro; we’ll probably be back again soon.