Thursday, November 30, 2000
There are 176 different dishes on the menu at Orient Restaurant, a little Chinese/Vietnamese joint in Seaside, over there around the corner from University Plaza, whose landlord has still done nothing to improve the appearance--like maybe replace the dead lights in the sign, add a few more around the neighborhood and treat the hardworking businesses there a bit more professionally.
Like one of its neighbors, Barn Thai, Orient is another honest husband-and-wife enterprise--this one has been going for 14 years--that has lost neither its quality nor its focus, despite being open Monday through Saturday from lunch through dinner, plus packaging food to go all day.
Restaurants provide different types of experiences. One kind creates a magical world where one can escape from regular daily existence and be restored by the feel of the place. Another type of restaurant offers the opportunity to enhance your regular daily existence by comfortably feeding you while you go about your normal business. Some restaurants inspire lingering, some just move you in and out. Orient is about the food. Period.
The decor is minimalist, even Spartan, efficency: softly colored walls, simple lighting, faux marble tables, lacquered chairs, plain paper placemats and napkins. Nothing superfluous. Calming traditional and pop Asian music plays softly in the ether, there yet not there simultaneously.
Families, folks, friends and first-timers find their way inside. The detached yet competent staff smoothly administers to your needs, intuitively understanding when to suggest, when to submit. The first experience with that endless menu is a bit daunting (like trying to ingest The Sardine Factory''s wine book in one sitting). But it is plainly laid out and not intimidating at all.
When faced with so many choices in a restaurant setting, my usual inclination is to try a couple of appetizers, see how the food is, then dig in for a four or five course marathon (my doctor''s admonitions regarding gout notwithstanding). (Un)fortunately, my loving partner, who does not get the same thrill out of trying to qualify for ever-increasing weight categories, manages to restrain me. In the event that I accidentally live to a ripe old age, my self-control will not be credited.
So, true to form, we ordered one app and one soup. Now you''ve got to remember something about the Vietnamese soup thing. They, being the resourceful and fascinating people that they are, have elevated the art of soup to an art form. What I mean is, they do soup as a complete meal.
Many have been the wholesome and life-restoring bowls I have enjoyed in Vietnamese joints on the fringes of Chinatowns throughout this great country (at press time, even though the elections were technically behind us--or is it in our behinds?--there was still a heap of campaigning going on). So when you order a soup (and Orient has 15 on the menu, each in small, large and x-large), even if you are thinking appetizer and want to choose the small bowl, think big instead.
She (you know who I mean) ordered a small hot and sour soup (spicy).
I (you know who I mean) ordered the imperial rolls (two in number). I was hoping they would come out with an escort by the imperial guards--although not nearly as much as Chickie Boom was hoping--but they arrived on a plate. They are about five inches long (I can hear you) with transparent wrappers that allow you to peek inside at the cute little shrimps, bamboo shoots, rice noodles, cilantro and pieces of pork. Served cold, they are beautifully warmed by a perfectly balanced sauce that synergizes a bunch of differing flavors into one spicy, nutty whole. A winner.
The hot and sour soup was rich, warming, flavorful, fresh and exactly correct in its pairing of hot and sour. I was ready to rumble. I abandoned the sake to Sweet Thing and dug in for a soiree of dish upon dish of Asian goodies, accompanied by one of God''s perfect companions, Tsing Tao beer. Remind me to tell you about my early morning eating and Tsing Tao orgies at Wo Hop''s in New York City''s Chinatown back in the early ''80s.
Before I could gather any serious momentum, my darling dropped anchor on my fantasy and maturely suggested that perhaps just one entree each would suffice. Naturally she was right (O reckless abandon, where hast thou gone?) and we banged out the pork with eggplant and chicken with lemongrass. One was Chinese style, the other Vietnamese style. Both were gorgeous. Bold flavors with just the right complementary heat and fresh ingredients made us instant believers in the power of the Orient.
With prices that are definitely on the inexpensive side, Orient Restaurant is a place to go for the real deal in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, either to eat in or take out. With neighbor Barn Thai right around the corner, this little Seaside shopping center can boast some of the finest Far Eastern food around.
Orient Restaurant, 1760 Fremont #C-2, near Echo, Seaside, 394-2223. Open from 11am-9pm Monday through Saturday, Closed Sunday.