Thursday, November 9, 2017


Dining out remains a special treat for my husband Jack and I, even though we don't do it as frequently nor travel as far as we used to. That means I don't get to write restaurant reviews as often as I'd like - we rarely go to a place I haven't already posted on my blog. So on a recent weekend night, we and a couple of friends decided to try a new-to-us local restaurant that might be called a reincarnation of one that for many years before its closing was highly regarded. This version 2.0 claims to have the same or similar recipes and is, by our standards, a relatively upscale place (with dinner entrees in the $13 to $18 range and wine sold mostly by the bottle). We called ahead and made reservations just to be on the safe side. Beyond that, we had high expectations for an evening to remember.

That it was, but for all the wrong reasons. When we arrived, we were seated immediately; there were just a few folks in the separate bar section and only one occupied table of four in the main dining area. Lookin' good so far, we said. But alas, from that point on, the whole experience turned into a comedy of errors. I won't name the place - mostly to protect the identity of the innocent. Rather, my intent is to point out what can, but should not, go awry (and just plain allow me to vent; almost a week later, I'm still fuming).

First, we had to move to a different location; the seats we were assigned must have been in the direct path of a heating duct - no way could we stay there without dripping sweat bullets all over our food. Sure, the hostess told us - just find a table you like. That we did; and when our server appeared and introduced herself, our first move was to confirm that it was "happy hour" - when the restaurant's website advertised half-price appetizers and discounts on alcoholic beverages. Well, not exactly, she countered - that's only if you sit in the bar area (which, for the record, was about 10 feet from our table). Would we like to move there? No, we sighed, mostly because we'd already moved once. At the same time, though, we agreed that since the deal was off limits, we'd skip appetizers and limit ourselves to just one alcoholic beverage each. Another point we agreed upon: Why wasn't that happy hour seating rule  posted where it could easily be seen as well as spelled out on the website?

As she took our orders for what would be our only round of drinks and the appetizer (yes, we caved in and got one of the least expensive to share), we realized our server was struggling to keep it together. She was totally unfamiliar with the menu and clueless about the very short list of by-the-glass wines; we actually had to point our fingers to indicate our choices. To her credit, she was very apologetic, noting - while close to tears - that she was new and being forced to run from one section of the restaurant to another to serve customers (thank goodness there weren't many, we said). Don't worry about us, we joked - we won't bite anything unless it's on our plate.

Her obvious lack of proper training became evident once again, though, when she delivered glasses of wine to the three of us who ordered it. The lucky devil who picked red? No problem. But two of us ordered different whites, and by the time she reached our table, she'd "forgotten" which was which. That forced us to take sips from both glasses to figure it out (tacky at the very least and unsanitary at worst, but then we've been friends for a long time and often sample each others' foods). It did make me wonder what on earth she would have done if we'd refused  - as most diners would have - to stick our lips on each other's glasses.

Our appetizer came fairly quickly and was excellent; we polished off at least half before realizing our server had not returned to take our dinner orders. Right about then, entrees were delivered to that only other occupied table in the room - folks who had been there when we first arrived. Within minutes, one person at that table had a problem with his entree. We couldn't hear specifically what the complaint was about, but the diner was far from a happy camper. 

At that point, we looked at each other and kicked around the possibility of paying for our appetizer and drinks and cutting our losses - our entree orders still hadn't been taken, after all - but as we waffled our server appeared (more than half an hour after we'd been seated) so we decided to stick it out. And once again, unfamiliarity reared its ugly head as she tried to find the items on the menu to write on her order pad; once again, we had to point fingers and repeat several times the names of the dishes we wanted.

Our salads arrived in fairly short order after that, and honestly, they weren't at all bad. Meantime, another group of six were seated next to us - and we watched with dismay as those folks not only ordered right away but got their entrees before we did. A diner at that table, too, voiced a complaint, making us doubt the wisdom of not leaving when we had the chance.

Then, finally, our entrees arrived (prime ribs with grilled asparagus for our two friends and linguine with clam sauce for Jack). My ravioli wasn't on the tray, though, and as she departed to get the glasses of water we'd requested at least half an hour earlier, the server told me my lasagna would be out shortly. Say what? I'd ordered ravioli. Thinking she'd simply misspoken, I sloughed it off - until she ran by the table once again and again mentioned lasagna. You mean ravioli? I nearly shouted at her back. 

The look on her face turned first to shock; but this time, she tried to argue - saying I'd pointed to the lasagna (I don't think so, but even if I did, I and everyone else at our table knew I'd spoken the word "ravioli" several times). At that point, she told me - again tearfully - that she'd ask them to make what I'd ordered. But since I like lasagna, I said I'd take it rather than chance getting what I'd ordered long after everyone else had finished eating.

Once we had our meals, I realized there was neither sprinkle cheese nor hot pepper seeds on our table; in most Italian restaurants, they're already there or the server offers to bring them. Our server, of course, was nowhere to be found, so I spotted a jar of sprinkle cheese on the empty table next to us and "stole" it - opting to forego a search for my beloved hot pepper seeds. In fairness, our friends' prime ribs were cooked to order and tasty, and our linguine and lasagna were quite good as well (although a little on the skimpy side portion-wise for the price compared to similar area restaurants).

The grilled asparagus, though, resembled long thin grass, and only the strong garlic flavor made it palatable (and then only barely). The next time the guy we guessed to be the manager wandered through our section, one of our friends attempted to ask him what kind of asparagus it was. Instead, he gave our friend the brush-off, claiming to be needed at the bar. Go, go, go, our friend responded - but please stop at our table on your way back.

Ah, but that was not to be. I watched as he took a furtive peek in our direction from the bar (remember, we were just a few feet away), then turn on his heels and head for the opposite end, where he took the back way into the kitchen never to be seen again. I must add that all four of us were appalled not only by his avoidance behavior but also by his attire. Surely, we thought, he could have picked something more appropriate than a pair of droopy cargo shorts, well-worn sneakers and a ratty baseball cap - fine for a burger joint, perhaps, but hardly what any customer we know would expect at a place like this.

Now ready to ante up, we weren't surprised to see no sign of our server (she hadn't made an appearance since bringing me the wrong entree). Finally, Jack spotted her and waved her over. She looked totally stricken until she realized all we wanted was our checks - and then the relief on her face was obvious. 

Our conclusions? Several, the first of which is the total unfairness of putting such an inexperienced and untrained server in this kind of position - a situation we lay directly at the feet of the manager and/or owner (Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer would have hung this guy out to dry). Second, the restaurant business doesn't enjoy the highest of profit margins, so satisfied customers are - or should be - a priority. If and when you make a mistake, it's imperative that you make it right - right away. At this place, making it right didn't happen for the unhappy diners at the tables next to us nor, obviously, to us. As one group left, they made it clear they won't be coming back - a sentiment we echoed as we walked out the door.

To be fair, before writing this I checked online reviews from other customers and found some wonderful comments. But I also found a goodly number whose opinions mirror ours - and that's more telling. If this place doesn't make it, I know quite a few people who won't be surprised.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Now that I'm old enough to have great-grandchildren, for the most part I've outgrown the food peccadilloes of my down-on-the-farm childhood. I now eat the crusts on bread, for instance (well, most of the time), and I no longer insist on removing the skin from a tomato before I'll eat it, as I insisted that my long-suffering mother do way back then. But still, no one would call me adventurous when it comes to food. When my husband Jack and I saw that Pho Viez, a new "Vietnamese restaurant with a twist" had replaced a Chinese eatery we frequented in Mineral Ridge, we agreed to give it a try. Probably. Someday.

That day came on a recent Saturday night, when we were joined by frequent dining-out companions Jerry and Barb. They've both somewhat experienced at eating Vietnam food, so they were up to the task (and we figured they'd be the perfect guides to help us navigate the menu). 

Good thing. When I looked it over on the restaurant's website, I was pretty much lost. I was interested in trying something new, but some of the ingredients sounded a bit off-putting. That, in turn, made me stop and think about how much food likes and dislikes are a matter of personal perspective. Growing up, you see, I thought nothing about helping mom pick the pinfeathers off a chicken she'd just killed for dinner or chowing down on her fried brains - a relative household staple. But tripe? Tofu? Pickled daikon? I have zero frame of reference for those, so my instinct was to say, no way.

In person, we found that the restaurant's interior has remained much the same, although with a freshened-up look (photos of the main dishes above the take-out order counter are much brighter, for one thing). We'd decided to eat in as long as a table was available - which it was - and a very helpful, enthusiastic young server followed us to bring menus. Silverware and napkins are already on the tables, along with a few add-in condiments like soy sauce, and the server brought our drinks in very short order.

The "twist" referred to in the restaurant's tagline, I'm assuming, refers to the fact that in addition to Vietnamese, diners can choose Thai dishes, such as Pad Thai, as well as more familiar (to us) Chinese entrees like Lo-Mein and General Tso's chicken. The specialty is Pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup made by simmering beef bone, flank steak, brisket daikon and herbs for hours (a meal in and of itself, priced at $9.25 to $11.95). But going in, Jack and I both reasoned that those Chinese options would serve as a fail-safe in case we chickened out on trying a Vietnamese dish. For the record, he did exactly that - opting for his old standby, sweet and sour chicken (with fried rice, which I hasten to add he never eats; we just bring it home for me to eat the next day).

The menu isn't what I'd call extensive, but rest assured there's plenty here to satisfy most diners - and certainly those who are looking for Vietnamese fare. To start, we got two orders of the spring rolls (two for $5.95) - described as vermicelli, Romaine lettuce, bean sprouts and a choice of shrimp, pork or tofu wrapped in rice paper and served with house dipping sauce. 

When they arrived, the near transparent rice paper provided a good look at the ingredients therein, and the peanut dipping sauce was a nice contrast. Now I'll be honest here: My first bite felt like I'd bitten into a shower curtain. Add that to the discovery that cucumbers were lurking inside, and let's just say I wasn't too excited about taking a second bite. But a little poking around revealed that the cucumber was cut in long strips and easy to pull out (cucumber-loving Barb snatched them up immediately), I gave it another try - and it really was quite tasty (that peanut dipping sauce is especially wonderful). 

Will I try one again? More likely I'll stick with a more traditional (to me) crispy spring roll or six-piece dumpling, fried or steamed ($4.95). Everyone else, though, raved about them, so don't hesitate to give them a try.

For our entrees, we all picked something different, with the intent of sharing a bite or two. Barb ordered Bun (rice vermicelli noodles on a bed of lettuce, herbs, bean sprouts, cucumber, carrots, peanuts, spring roll and house fish sauce, $11.95 with a choice of meat). Jerry's choice was Pad Thai (a.k.a., Mi Zao Thai Lan), this restaurant's version of the classic Asian stir-fry of rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, ground peanuts and chives in tamarind sauce and a choice of meat ($10-$11.95). 

Fear of the unknown almost made me go with that General Tso's chicken that I know I love, but in the end the opportunity to try something different won out and I opted for the red curry, with bell peppers, carrots, bamboo shoots and onions simmered that aforementioned coconut milk. It comes with white rice (I paid a buck more for fried rice) and a choice of tofu, chicken, beef or shrimp - perhaps thinking about my mom, it was chicken for me. The cost ranges from $10 to $12.95 depending on options, but mine ended up at $11.

Let me add here that when I see "spicy" on a menu item, I always request that mine be "as spicy as you can make it." Even then, never, ever, has any dish been too hot for me to eat. This time, though, our server fought back - arguing that there's no way I'd be able to eat their hottest version. Despite my unabashed begging, we compromised; yes, he said, they'd add a little extra heat.

When our orders were delivered, right up front we all agreed on two points: The presentation is outstanding - all the items on the plates are beautifully arranged - and, as advertised, all the ingredients are as fresh as can be. Clearly, the food here is far and away above the often overcooked Chinese buffet fare with meats of suspicious origin. Not only does everything here look fantastic, but it all tastes just-cooked as well.

I also learned rather quickly that our server probably kept me from total meltdown by insisting that I really didn't want it as hot as they could make it. In fact, there was a noticeable kick to it - enough that, after Barb ventured a tiny taste, no one else in our little party would come near it. Later, the owner explained she'd used only half a spoonful of whatever infuses the heat; and although I'm sure I could have handled a whole spoonful, it's likely that next time I order this dish I'll stick with what worked this time around. And yes, it was delicious enough to order again (and I had plenty left over to take home and enjoy the next day).

Conclusion? With no reservations, we'd say we were impressed. And here's another impressive note: Barb told us they'd eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago not long ago, and Pho Viez compares quite well. No surprise here - it just underscores my reason for starting this blog years ago: When it comes to great food, anything you can find anywhere else in the country you can find just as good - and often better - right here at home.

If you go:

Pho Viez
3971 S. Main St.
Mineral Ridge, OH 44440
(330) 349-0889

Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.