Fireside Deli & Family Restaurant 800 Ottawa Street South Kitchener,…
500 Fairway Road South
Kitchener, ON N2C 1X3
Lunch for two with tea: $35
* * *
I usually don’t bother with chain outlets, but sitting in traffic — which is a normal state of being on crazy-busy Fairway Road — I got to thinking, “Remember when Ben Thanh was at the corner of King and Cedar streets in downtown Kitchener?”
That was aeons ago before the little stand-alone was razed for the current Kitchener Market. I remember distinctly my father taking us in there and being just slightly unsure of what it was and what I would be getting to eat. Those were the very early seedlings of a diverse restaurant scene in the thriving metropolis. Nevertheless, the recollection spurred me, and so I visited Ben Thanh Fairway, one of what must be nearly a dozen outlets around southwestern Ontario.
The menu is huge; impossibly large to conceive, in fact: from soups and dim sum to seafood, and from vermicelli platters to congee. It’s simply impossible to get much coverage of the dozens and dozens of dishes.
The broth in the rare beef and tendon (#104) is delicious: salty, but not too salty; five-spiced, but not overly five-spiced. It’s a lighter broth than others, which is fine by me; fine as well as a smaller dose of onions (red onions at that): some pho can be over-powered by onions, to the detriment of more subtle flavours that make it one of the world’s great soups.
What was curious about this medium-sized bowl was unusually tough beef (given that the protein starts out as raw and partially frozen) along with an unfortunate paucity of tendon: I hunted and snooped through the noodles and mung bean sprouts but could only find a few pieces. That’s disappointing
A bowl of chicken soup with rice noodles (#116) is not disappointing: it’s basic, mild and delicious with tender chicken and delicate yet flavourful broth.
Things get really rocky when it comes to the dim sum items on the menu; and, “Dim sum items that,” the waiter asks pleasantly, “should come out as appetizers before the soup?” We replied pleasantly, “Yes, please.”
The worst part is that they didn’t come out properly cooked either. Gyoza, that Japanese adaptation of the Chinese original, is one of my favourites and it goes divinely with pho (or ramen). At its ideal, gyoza experiences two cooking techniques: it needs to be sauteed for a crispy, nearly-charred and almost-blistered treatment. And then it needs a good steaming.
The result? A nicely chewy texture buttressed by crisp. Ideally. Alas, such was not the case on this visit: a gummy texture prevailed, amidst a decent chicken and chive stuffing to the dumpling.
We need to say a dining ditto to the shrimp-stuffed eggplant: the texture and general happiness of the morsels just was not there as they lacked that freshness and proper texture, as if they lingered under a warming light much too long before their journey to the table.
And so it goes with the ha gow — usually a delicious dumpling. It’s saddled with either improper technique or a too-long wait at the pass: the wrapped nibble, nicely crimped, tastes quite good and is blessed with a pleasant texture on the inside: that wrapper, however, is gummy and sticky. A shame for such a succulent tidbit.
All of which bring us to the service at Ben Thanh — entering the place is like entering some sort of glass labyrinth: I’ve watched a couple of folks almost walk into a nearly invisible doorway on occasion (and that included me). Otherwise, the entrance was marked by a perhaps moment too long for staff to recognize we were waiting and seat us. The dining room wasn’t that busy. Though the staff were friendly and pleasant, it then took far too long — easily 20 minutes — for our simple dishes to arrive: it’s not like they are making the gyoza from scratch.
I’m forced to leave with a further sad impression: there is nothing worse than the look of a restaurant in midday. The dark interior and black surfaces at Ben Thanh are fine and even attractive at night, but with full light, things look less appealing — including the wall beside our table that really needed a good cleaning to remove the slaughter of soup slurps and splashed food from the hungry hordes that have chowed down. It’s unavoidable with the pho eating process, but that doesn’t make it okay.
It’s called attention to detail and seeing to the little and important things. Does a manager or owner not notice such things? Evidently not.
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