T for tepid

Driving through Roseville can be a surreal experience, with entire shopping centers and housing developments springing up like toadstools every time you blink.

Take the Palisades Plaza on the corner of North Sunrise and East Roseville Parkway for example. This is a brand-new complex, just blocks from the Roseville Galleria. It currently houses some chichi home-furnishing stores, a Patrick James, a Starbucks and T Bistro, an upscale eatery with another on the way, right next door.

T Bistro has been open just a month, but it has an ambitious mission: to bring the mysteries of Southeast Asian cuisine to suburbia. Here’s the answer to the problem of whether to indulge in Thai or Vietnamese. At T Bistro, you can have both, as well as treats from Malaysia and Singapore.

The restaurant is an attractive space, anchored with a nearly full-size sculpture of a child riding a water buffalo.

But a lack of attention to some necessary details served as a sign that this fledgling bistro is still finding its feet. Crumbs, Kleenex and other debris had not been cleared from the chairs and the floor after the last set of diners vacated our table, and one waitress (not ours) looked as if she had just rolled out of bed. Our waiter brought me hot Vietnamese coffee instead of the iced coffee I’d requested. Although he corrected the error, the coffee suffered from a stingy hand with the sweetened condensed milk, which gives the beverage its characteristic taste. There was a significant gap between the arrival of the appetizers and the entrees—difficult to understand on a slow Sunday evening. And our entrees were barely lukewarm, a problem management says will be corrected with some new plate-warming equipment in the kitchen.

These are all small failings, and the owners are working hard to iron out all the bugs that attend the opening of any new venture. More problematic was the food. Almost without exception, the dishes sampled were surprisingly bland, including the ones marked with a “T” for spiciness. Even an order of Singapore chili prawns, which definitely had zing, suffered from a certain flatness and lack of dimensionality. Southeast Asian cuisine is appealing precisely because the flavors are layered, complex and bold. T Bistro’s food is, to be honest, a little boring.

We tried some typical appetizers, including satay chicken skewers and T Bistro’s version of spring rolls, here called rocket rolls. The satay ($6.95 for two skewers) was plump and juicy, and the sauce was appropriately peanutty and spicy, although a little thin. The rocket rolls ($5.95) came in vegetarian and meat versions and were served with a sweet dipping sauce. Though they were crispy and not greasy, they didn’t taste like anything in particular. A coconut-milk soup ($3.95) seemed to be a version of tom ka gai with shrimp instead of chicken. But it, too, was bland, without the necessary spark provided by the traditional spicing.

Our entrees were unevenly executed but proved a little more interesting. A dish of chicken in green peppercorn sauce ($8.95) had an appealing mix of squash, chicken and peppers. It was marked spicy but had no discernible heat, and it also suffered from being overly salty. The aforementioned chili prawns ($12.95) lived up to the spicy billing and were very tender, but the tomato sauce in which the prawns were stir-fried seemed strangely flat.

“We did tone down the spice [in the food],” said T Bistro’s part owner, Eric Lieu. “It’s not meant to be authentic. We didn’t know how the town would react to our food.” Lieu said the restaurant has taken all the Southeast Asian traditions and added its own creativity. T Bistro is a family venture; Lieu’s brother David is the head chef. Lieu did say that the heat level on the dishes marked spicy would be kicked up a notch. The Lieus also plan to roll out some more exotic specialties in the months ahead.

The decision to adapt the menu to the market apparently has proved successful. Lieu said the family couldn’t be happier with the turnout so far. “People have gone out of their way to thank us for bringing this cuisine to the area,” he said.

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would prefer a more Americanized version of, say, Evil Jungle Prince chicken. Of course, Thai Basil, just a few short blocks away on Sunrise Boulevard, has a line out the door every night for its uncompromising take on Thai.