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ORIENT EXPRESS 

Vieng's offers pan-Asian cuisine under one roof

Who would have thought that provincial Westlake would trump the cultural diversity of Cleveland's Asiatown? Not even in that bustling ethnic enclave can diners score such a range of culinary treats. From Japanese sushi and Chinese dim sum to Thai beef salad and Vietnamese pho, it's all available in Crocker Park. More specifically, it's all available at a single restaurant, Vieng's Asian Bistro.

Taking the place of the shuttered Claddagh Irish Pub, Vieng's is a splashy pan-Asian restaurant dishing up the cuisines — at least our version of them — of Thailand, China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. The restaurant is the newest member of the Timothy Ly family of restaurants, which includes Thai Gourmet in Stow and Independence, and Pad Thai in Hudson and Fairlawn.

Akin to an indie version of P.F. Chang's, Vieng's elevates the typically modest ethnic restaurant to an attractive, contemporary hotspot. Stacked white river rock lines the walls, sleek faux red-paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling and graceful waterfalls are positioned throughout the dimly lit interior. But far from a Zen palace of contemplation, this joint rocks to the beat of kicky house music. A massive central bar fills the room with the energy of a sports bar — albeit a sports bar where patrons snack on fried wontons rather than fried wings.

One side of that sizeable four-sided bar is devoted to an eight-seat sushi bar. On nights when pagers are handed out faster than tables (a given on weekends), that sushi bar is a hungry man's best friend. On a busy Friday night, we slip past a long line of loiterers and take immediate refuge in front of the fish fridge. Within moments, the sushi chef hands over complimentary salads of crab, cucumbers and orange. Despite being inches from the chef, our fish orders have to go through a server, but there is little lag in service. We munch on a big bowl of warm and salty edamame ($5), sip on (too) hot sake for two ($10) and enjoy a well-prepared roll filled with spicy yellowtail and scallion ($8). You won't find the largest or most thrilling fish selection here, but what's served is fresh and well-priced.

For a more serene dining experience or to fully ponder the comprehensive menu, it's wise to wait for a seat in the dining room. Nearly as long as the Great Wall of China, the menu is jammed with hundreds of options; many dishes come with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu, shrimp, squid, duck or veggies. Overwhelming, yes, and the less-than-straightforward menu categories don't offer much in the way of guidance. Rather than group dishes by ethnicity (or protein), they are broken into vague categories like All Time Favorites, Chef Specialties and Bistro Specialties. Sprinkled throughout those pages are Thai curries, Cantonese classics, Vietnamese noodle soups and contemporary pan-Asian fusion dishes.

A simple stroll down the starter list lands diners in both familiar and exotic territory. Stacked into a pyramid, six slender and crispy spring rolls ($6) come with sweet dipping sauce. Far healthier are the fresh basil rolls ($4), which are plump rice pancakes stuffed with shrimp, chicken, lettuce and basil. The potstickers ($6) are handmade and delicious; unfortunately they arrive barely warm. Vieng's version of salt and pepper shrimp ($10), where lightly battered shrimp are stir-fried with garlic and chiles, lacks the fiery appeal of the original.

Too much coconut milk tempers an otherwise enjoyable chicken in green curry ($13). The mildly spiced dish features chicken, green beans, bamboo shoots and peas in a sauce not unlike Thai coconut soup. To spice up our meals, we rely on liberal doses of sriracha and Szechuan chile oil.

Vieng's Korean sizzling steak ($17) is a delightfully effortless adaptation of the interactive Korean meal bulgogi. A blistering-hot platter takes the place of the traditional table-top hotplate, searing all the meat in one smoky blast. What's left (apart from the splatter) is lightly charred and surprisingly tender beef in a faintly sweet, garlicky sauce. This and most dishes come with a covered dish of steamed rice.

Fried rice fans (guilty!) should absolutely tack on an order of Vieng's house version. For just $7, the table is rewarded with a heaping mound of fluffy chicken, beef, pork or veggie fried rice. More than likely, it will serve as lunch the following day.

Vieng's offers an unexpectedly astute selection of white wines by the glass, including Sofia Rosé ($10) and Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling ($8). There are only four sakes on the list, which is a shame. Mojitos ($9) get an Asian twist, with flavors like ginger-pomegranate and lime-mangosteen.

dining@clevescene.com

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