Scented Geranium suffers from an affliction that strikes restaurateuring neophytes and veterans alike: culinary inconsistency. Granted, getting what are often complicated dishes singing on the same note time and time again without fail is a tough thing to accomplish, especially on days when the kitchen staff hasn't shown up or isn't yet trained or doesn't give a damn. Or when the ingredients aren't as fresh today as yesterday, or when the kitchen equipment isn't firing on all burners, or your dishwasher has five-fingered you out of the day's operating funds. But the best places do it, somehow, no matter how complicated the dishes are.
Operators who do it right usually charge prices that allow them to find and retain kitchen help as well as to build and maintain relationships with the best vendors. Then again there are certain inconsistencies that can be the result of little else but inattention, sloppiness, poor training or maybe just ignorance.
Take soup. Soup is a culinary component that should be served hot unless it's vichyssoise or is made with watermelon. And soup is one of the central foods in Vietnam, particularly pho. Pho is that wonderfully aromatic and soothing Vietnamese noodle soup (usually served at breakfast) that dates back to the 10th century. Each big perfumy bowl is served with a plate of fresh mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeño pepper slices and a lime wedge so that you can customize the soup to your taste. Scented Geranium's pho can be ordered with tofu, chicken, beef, shrimp or meatball, which might be one huge meatball or several little ones. It's hard to tell.
The beef came as thin sheets of rosy meat that were tender and chewy. The broth was clean and aromatic. The noodles were perfectly cooked. Scented Geranium's pho works well.
But on a previous visit the canh chua, the "famous" Vietnamese hot and sour soup, was served tepid, and the flavors, dominated by an insipid sweetness, didn't merge--as if the soup hadn't had a chance to steep. In fact, a good portion of what was served on our first visit was barely warm, if even that. Ca nuong, salmon grilled with lemongrass, was downright chilly, and the meat was suspiciously dense and hard, as if it had been grilled and then reheated. Mi xao don, crispy chow mein-like noodles sautéed with vegetables in oyster sauce, could be ordered with a choice of tofu, chicken, beef and an interesting collection of seafood: shrimp, scallops, crab and squid. Seafood arrived as long rubbery strips of calamari, cold shrimp, cold and slightly slimy scallops and no trace of crab. It seemed as though the dish was stopped in midstride and then delivered.
To test the consistency of the Scented Geranium (either all bad, or a little each of good and bad), we ordered one non-Vietnamese dish on two separate occasions. Scented Geranium's Saigon Mandarin dish comes with a choice of meat fried in egg batter and sautéed in a sweet, salty caramelized brown sauce, which could be the same generic sauce that comes with all Chinese takeout food. On the first visit, our Mandarin chicken, a rust-hued batter-encased piece of meat, arrived cold, and the side mound of white rice was hard and stiff. On the second visit, the chicken arrived piping hot and was crispy, moist and chewy without a hint of grease. The rice was separate and warm instead of cold and hard. Another dish ordered on a pair of visits was the edamame, the steamed soybean pods that are an addicting finger food. On the first visit, these pods were hard and cool without much seasoning. On the second visit, they were hot, supple and well-salted.
The Scented Geranium is lodged in the expansive space on McKinney Avenue that used to house Chihuahua Charlie's, a Tex-Mex playhouse. The spot had been vacant for more than two years, perhaps indicating how tough it is to generate enough to keep a lease afloat with mere dining patrons. On our visits, the dining room was desolate. And the room was sure assembled on a tight budget, which can be a good thing if what little resources exist are applied with laser focus. Scented Geranium makes liberal use of gauzy curtains, which mow down the palatial quality of the space with little corners of intimacy. Halogen spotlights are scattered throughout, illuminating the walls of pale pea green, lavender and turquoise. One even beams the restaurant's name on a gauzy curtain behind the hostess stand. There's a long bar with a black top where no liquor is served, as the operators have yet to get their hands on a liquor license. So they serve free wine with dinner (hurry and get yours): chardonnay and cabernet.
Restaurant propaganda says the place is named for scented geranium leaves, famous for the array of aromas they elicit: citrus, rose, peppermint and ginger, among others. The flowers are said to represent joy and health.
Yet that's most definitely not what the geranium platter elicited. This collection of appetizers embraced many of the flaws discovered in other dishes and incorporated some new ones. Jumbo shrimp draped in a thick rice batter and fried were obnoxiously greasy. Spring rolls were wrapped tightly in a thick sheet of rice paper that was rubbery--like silicone. Fried egg rolls were hard and cold. Only the shrimp toast, slackly warm though it was, offered any interest
Another potentially tantalizing appetizer, the allegedly seasoned softshell crab coated in rice batter and fried, was too bland, chalky and mushy to be titillating.
But the bo tai chanh, a kind of Vietnamese steak tartar, was delicious. Instead of sliced as the menu depicts, the beef was chopped and cut into tiny strips. It's congealed in the center of the plate and settled on large lettuce leaves composed into a kind of green roulette wheel. Rice wafers dot the perimeter of the plate. Cured in lime and blended with mint, red onion, peanuts and spices, the meat is appropriately cool with refreshing clean flavors and an appealing consistency: moist and rich without being sticky or gooey.
Another delicious dish, appropriately cool instead of mishandled into chill, was the bun tom nuong. Though the menu says the shrimp are marinated with lemongrass and grilled, these shrimp were boiled before they were mingled with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, cilantro and cucumber topped with chopped peanuts: a kind of gargantuan Vietnamese pasta salad. The noodles were perfectly cooked and separate. Yet the shrimp were a little soft, and the whole thing could have used a sauce or a dressing to hold it together.
Desserts include scoops of mango, red bean and green-tea ice cream along with pineapple tempura, a crispy sweet finish topped off with ice cream.
It's hard to know if the Scented Geranium has the fortitude to survive long enough to work out its kinks, but it doesn't look hopeful. On one of our visits a manager approached us as we were paying the check to have a picture taken of her with the group at our table. She handed the camera to our server and we flashed our chops. The only reason for cameras is to capture things that are soon to be memories. In the meantime, in addition to the free wine, the Scented Geranium is offering 10 percent off at lunch.
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