April 12, 2008

Bamboo Hut: Vietnamese with a Big Scoop of MSG in Worcester

Having had a long, busy week with a bummer or two thrown in toward the end, LL and I decided to go out for dinner last night. We stopped off at State Liquors on Park first. It's my favorite package store wherein almost anything can be found, and on this expedition I came up with a bottle of Momokawa Pearl saké. It's the first time I've found an unfiltered (nigori) saké for sale since we left California. Things were looking up! We decided to continue the Asian theme by trying out a restaurant that has been recommended to me by a university colleague and has had generally good reviews in the past, Bamboo Hut Vietnamese (1394 Main Street, Worcester). The place seems to have become something of an institution since it opened eight years ago. After our visit, I'm not sure why this should be.

Bamboo Hut is a BYOB restaurant, so we took our saké with us. The restaurant itself is on the first floor of a converted home; we were seated in an area that used to be the porch. The atmosphere is very homey and familial, though the choice of avocado-green paint over stucco is a bit questionable. It's not the most appetizing decor to look at.

I attempted to order a crispy squid appetizer and stir-fried duck in tamarind sauce as an entrée, only to be informed by the waiter that they were out of both. He told me to choose back-ups while he went to the kitchen to double check. When he returned fifteen minutes later, he informed me regretfully that the supply of both squid and duck were indeed gone, so I instead ordered garden rolls and stir-fried venison with potatoes and peppers. LL ordered a papaya salad and triple crown, a spicy dish of shrimp, scallops and salmon. I can't think of the last time that I've had it happen that two of the house specials were unavailable, but I like venison anyhow.

The food was adequate but nothing special. My garden rolls were quite good, though it would have been a nice touch to ice down the thawed shrimp that they contained so that they would be cold like the rest of the roll. The papaya salad was very spicy and neither LL nor I could find or taste the papaya in it. There was plenty of cabbage and a sweet sauce but no papaya as far as we could tell. The triple crown was good, with nice presentation and a bit of spiciness. We've had similar dishes in many Asian restaurants and this was certainly the same thing as we've had elsewhere. My venison stir-fry was all right, though again nothing special. The meat was cooked just well enough so as not to toughen it and there was plenty of it, too. The sauce in which it was served was brown and nondescript, bland and really not adding anything to the flavor of the dish. The potatoes had a texture that I found slightly disagreeable, simultaneously chewy and mushy. Still, I do like venison and that part was done well, although overall it would have been nice if the dish had been a bit more creative in the use of spices. As it was, it was just meat and peppers with nothing distinctive about it.

The owners of the restaurant have two young daughters, one of whom latched onto us and was our companion for the entire meal. She was a cute kid and very friendly, and this would have been fine in a small dose. After awhile, though, it became obvious that we were going to be a party of three instead of two. The little girl got very familiar after awhile; it's not even the slightest exaggeration to say that she was climbing on us as well as on other customers nearby. As entertaining as her stories about Christmas presents and constant refrain of "chin up, chin up" were at first, twenty or so minutes of this were quite enough. I began to feel a bit like a surrogate daycare provider, although who could tell such a cute kid to go away? Even after two glasses of saké I couldn't be that heartless. Still, the owners of Bamboo Hut ought to realize that having their daughters playing hide-and-seek under the tables of paying customers who are trying to eat dinner isn't a dining experience that most people are going to seek out repeatedly. Instead of having a nice, intimate, quite conversation over dinner, LL and I found ourselves literally cornered by a very energetic five year old. No offense, but if we wanted one of those we'd adopt one! That's not what we're looking for when we go to a restaurant, though.

After we'd paid our relatively reasonable tab (dinner for two, including the tip and $4 corking fee was just under $60; I think we should have gotten a discount for babysitting), we headed home. I woke up at about midnight with a terrible headache and loud ringing in my ears. I only get these symptoms when I've been overdosed on MSG, and while I can't prove it I feel certain that my stir-fried venison must have been loaded with the stuff. It's 9:15 AM as I write these words and only in the last hour have I begun feeling better. LL has an even worse reaction to the stuff, so it's a good thing I was the one who ordered the venison. I won't be doing that again.

Now, it's entirely possible that we simply caught Bamboo Hut on a bad night. Plenty of people seem to like the place, but from my experience with it last night I can't say that I'm a fan nor that I plan on going back again. The best things about dinner were no better than any number of other places and Vietnamese restaurants dot the map of Worcester so there are lots of other choices. The worst things about Bamboo Hut fall into the category of "this is no way to run a restaurant," and they were enough to entirely put us off to the place. Based solely on last night, I can't fathom why I've heard good things about it. LL and I will definitely be going elsewhere next time we're in the mood for Vietnamese food and not in the mood to keep someone's kids entertained.

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