8080 Transit Rd., Williamsville NY 14221
Web: Saigon Bangkok
Rating: [learn more]
A strong hybrid Thai and Vietnamese menu with traditional and specialty items from each cuisine, all generally prepared very well, with some real standouts. Especially great soups and chef's specials.
Menu lacks some of prior venue's better dishes, and dishes varied from okay to great in preparation. Relatively serious issues with timing and service.
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Amherst Thai Vietnamese Williamsville
"There's no doubt that the new Saigon Bangkok needs better help - on the floor, and perhaps a little in the kitchen - before it gets up to the standards of its predecessor."
Reviewing a restaurant based on its opening night is akin to judging a play based on its final dress rehearsal: no matter how expert the players may be, the jitters and uncertainties of performing before a real audience take a little working through. Thus, although we generally enjoyed our first-night meal at the just-opened second location of Saigon Bangkok - now at Transit and Maple in Williamsville, adding to its successful Niagara Falls Boulevard venue - we're holding off on rating it for a little while. In any case, we suspect that it's going to be an immediate hit in this formerly Thai- and Vietnamese-starved neighborhood. Updated! We've added a rating, lower than initially expected, and a full explanation that's found at the bottom of this review.
Reclaimed from a less than beloved restaurant called Touch, Saigon Bangkok's new venue is nicely decorated, with a waiting alcove inside the frosted glass front doors, dark walls, and a bamboo theme with nice mood lighting and fresh, modern carpeting. It's a visual step up from the Niagara Falls Boulevard restaurant, pretty much what we'd imagine that place would look like if it could close for two weeks for an interior redesign. But it's similarly limited in size: we counted seating capacity for roughly 50 people, with some tables pretty close to others to maximize the space.
The five-page menu, we were told by our server, is temporary but substantially complete. Like the original location, the new Saigon Bangkok offers a combination of Thai and Vietnamese menu options, with a different balance than the recently opened Thai Orchid - that restaurant focuses largely on Thai dishes, but with a sprinkling of Vietnamese, while Saigon Bangkok's options are roughly fifty-fifty. One surprise is that this new location's menu is not segregated into Vietnamese and Thai sections; rather, it has been combined and somewhat Anglicized, with former references to the Thai Yum Nua salad becoming "Steak Salad," and the Vietnamese Bun noodle dish devolving into just "Vermicelli." A handful of the other restaurant's dishes, such as the favorite crispy rice noodle dish Mi Xao Don, are simply gone, with a possibility rather than a certainty that they'll return.
That's sort of bad news. But there's lots of good news. Most of the prior menu's excellent dishes, including many of our favorites, are still here. We ordered the Dancing Seafood ($16), a lemongrass sauce-soaked seafood dish that historically was loaded with squid, scallops, shrimp, mussels, and fish fillets, plus onions, sliced peppers, scallions, basil and lime leaves. To our amazement, the dish came out better than we've had it at the other location in the past year - packed with seafood and bursting with rich, spicy flavor.
Other familiar items generally arrived in their expected, delicious forms. Both Thai Tom Yum ($5) and Vietnamese Hot and Sour ($4) Soups came out impressively spiced, the Tom Yum a deep red with sliced mushrooms on top and a couple of shrimp inside; the Hot and Sour a gentler, sweeter orange with tomatoes, bean sprouts, green celery and peppers, plus a decorative green splatter on the bowl. Ordered with chicken, it was at least as good as the other location's version, and packed a little more punch - we drained the bowl to the bottom. Vietnamese Summer Rolls ($5), soft, room temperature rice paper wraps stuffed with a salad-like combination of shrimp, sliced chicken, vermicelli noodles and lettuce, were exactly as good as expected, and a vegetarian version ($4) was also satisfying.
Other items were a little more hit and miss. The previously mentioned Vietnamese Bun rice vermicelli noodle dish, served at room temperature, and as ordered - a vegetarian tofu version rather than with meat ($9) - was both beautiful and enjoyable, possessing a colorful array of sliced carrots, peppers, lettuce, broccoli, and cucumber. But two Thai Steak Salads ($11), ordered slightly differently in meat preparation and spice level, both came out the same: the contents were too light on the dish's traditionally spicy lime sauce, which instead somehow managed to rest in the bottom of the bowl. An appetizer portion of Chicken Satay ($7) arrived as three surprisingly plump and impressively moist skewers of grilled, yellow-colored meat with a dish of peanut sauce; however, the chicken wasn't strong on flavor, and the sauce was a little too thin. When they were put together, their combined freshness and light peanut taste would be good enough to sate most people anyway, despite the dish's less than complete resemblance to authentic satays served elsewhere.
Our three desserts, two combinations of homemade Coconut Ice Cream and Fried Bananas, and one Creme Brulee, went over pretty well. One of us was still reeling from the pool of spicy sauce in the bottom of the salad bowl, and couldn't taste the coconut flavor in the ice cream, but it was unmistakably there, complete with slices of coconut and a nut garnish for added texture. It was quite good for those of us who could taste it. The Creme Brulee custard arrived with a somewhat overly thick caramelized top, but was still delicious, if on the small side; each of the three items came with a pair of tiny fried banana tubes, which were fine, but not quite up to Jasmine Thai's dessert standards, or even those of the other Saigon Bangkok location.
Arriving as we did on the restaurant's first night in business, it was obvious that there were some service wrinkles left to be ironed out. The friendly servers nonetheless seemed a bit confused about the desserts and other fairly simple elements of our orders, coming back to re-check all of the details - sometimes more than once - while the kitchen's turnaround ranged from a little slow to pretty quick depending on the course; dessert was downright fast after our server came back to tell us what was actually being offered. We'd chalk most of this up to inexperience in the venue, and would expect that it'll be fixed, but obviously, it'll take a return visit to know for sure.
Overall, Saigon Bangkok's second location has the potential to either equal or fall a little short of its great first one, but it's too early to say which will be the case; the new venue's wine bar was pretty much empty at this early stage, and whatever menu changes are pending may well impact our interest, as well. For now, we can say with certainty that residents of Williamsville and East Amherst now have two really good Thai and Vietnamese restaurants rather than the zero they had only three months ago; whether either turns out to be definitively better than the other will depend a lot on what sort of groove Saigon Bangkok settles into in the days and weeks to come. We'd put it in roughly the three-star category today, but will determine add our final rating after the dust settles.
Updated January 25, 2009: The dust has had time to settle, and after returning to this location of Saigon Bangkok for a second meal, we left certain that it's a step or two below both the original location and the nearby competitor Thai Orchid. Why? While it would be easy to dwell on the omissions in the menu, they're not the major problem; rather, the new Saigon Bangkok has the rare serious issue with table service that is considerable enough to significantly impact a rating.
On our first visit, we were surprised that our server couldn't keep our orders straight, but on the second visit, we - and many other diners we observed over the course of a needlessly extended meal - had trouble even getting servers to take orders, bring silverware, carry food to the correct table, or deliver the check; it seemed like no one knew what was going on. After fifteen minutes with our menus, we found ourselves physically waving a server over, and though a friendly enough apology was made, the issues were pervasive; when our food finally arrived, it didn't seem worth the wait. The broth of the Vietnamese Hot and Sour Soup tasted fine, but not hot, and the chicken inside was flavorless, as if the bowl had been hastily assembled; other items, such as a Thai basil-flavored Beef Pad Grapow were better, but similarly seemed to have been rushed together.
While we wouldn't characterize our latter visit as "bad," there's no doubt that the new Saigon Bangkok needs better help - on the floor, and perhaps a little in the kitchen - before it gets up to the standards of its predecessor. It's certainly possible for a restaurant with great food to recover from poor service, but if the food dips below great or the service stays poor, most people who stop in twice won't be back for a third visit. For now, we've concluded that Thai Orchid's the better pick in this immediate area, but our hope is that the management finds a way to turn this location around.