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.