Almost hip, almost there
Sacramento, CA 95816
Upon entering Coriander’s uber-urban, hip space, you know it’s been designed for the younger Midtown crowd and self-described foodies looking to get some traditional Vietnamese food before hitting the clubs. But does the food match the space?
The Coriander sampler plate offers such a bevy of options. An egg roll attempts to disregard tradition and tuck mushroom slivers into its tender center. Sadly, it all ends up being bland. The shrimp roll—shrimp and scallion tied tightly in wonton wrappers and fried—is just as dull. However, both of these fried foods are perfectly fried: crisp, light and with no oily sogginess.
A bulging spring roll tucked with grilled pork sausage is a lugubrious thing stuffed with more rice noodles than a man could need, but bits of fried egg-roll wrapper add a pleasant and unexpected textural counterpoint. The sausage tasted utterly devoid of flavor, and my dining companions conferred that perhaps grilled Spam would have been a better option. (Not a joke.)
Then there was the banh beo, or as one eater put it: the bio sample. Banh beo is a unique appetizer that focuses on texture, comprising a tiny gelatinous rice cake served with crispy shallot and small shrimp. Pour a sweet sauce over it, and eat the whole bit. It’s a bit messy and takes some skill to eat, but that’s the fun of it. The taste and texture play is intriguing, and I wonder why more Vietnamese restaurants don’t serve it.
The Saigon crepe (bánh xèo) arrived looking like a Jackson Pollock of crispy egg, shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts (Vietnamese crepes are more like crispy omelets). Tucked into lettuce cups with fresh herbs, it packed plenty of fresh flavor.
The chicken pho consisted of a light ginger-anise broth with bean sprouts, shredded chicken and the usual pho fixings. It came off rather salty, and there are better bowls of pho to be had in Sacramento.
Avoid the seafood banh canh soup. It’s an awkward dish where wonderful components such as the chewy, handmade rice noodles and the fresh crab are overwhelmed by the poorer ingredients. The fish cake tasted so fishy that it took everything we had not to spit it out. Moreover, the broth lacked depth and possessed a mere carpet burn of heat. After only a few bites, the bowl remained untouched the entire meal.
A grilled pork chop enticed one of my more timid eaters, but this turned out to be a tough-as-nails marinated grilled steak served with a nondescript light salad, and a mountain of white rice. A runny egg is served upon the rice, though ours was harder than a bar exam, leaving no glorious yolk to flood the plate.
A fried rice dish was the best option of the night, as it took an unexpected step of adding Spam and habanero pepper, enlivening the Chinese takeout staple. But that’s kinda the thing: The best item at the Vietnamese restaurant was the Chinese one.
Prices are more than fair. A little money goes a long way, so if you’re looking to fill up, Coriander is good to go.
The staff at Coriander was sweet, but at each visit they were easily flummoxed, forgetful about nearly everything and knew little about the menu.
It feels to me that Coriander is where a restaurant should be when it’s doing friends-and-family night a week before opening. There are good ideas here, and the cooks in the kitchen have a grasp on technique. At this point, it’s a matter of balancing flavors, adding a bit of chili pepper here or star anise there, or cutting back on the salt.
More time and effort needs to be put into transforming this hope-to-be-hip joint from an indifferent occurrence into a sought-after adventure. The potential is there. It just needs to be nurtured.