Dining Out: Awaiting greatness at Wei’s

 

Chicken and Shrimp Vermicelli Bowl at Wei's Noodle House. Photo by Peter Hum

Wei’s Noodle House
726 Somerset St. W., 613-230-6815, weisnoodlehouse.ca
Open: Every day except Tuesday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays from 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Soups from $6.99 to $10, other dishes $10 to $12
Access: Steps to restaurant entrance

Over the last two decades, I’ve had innumerable great and casual dinners at 726 Somerset St. W. — no matter who was running the joint.

If I recall correctly, the restaurants Mee Fung, Cam Kong, and, until a few months ago, Fuschian have occupied the tiny space at that Chinatown address. For these proprietors, short-order Vietnamese cooking — big bowls of steaming soup, fresh vermicelli-based salads, enticing spring and salad rolls — was usually the name of the game. And despite working out of one of Ottawa’s smallest kitchens, the cooks doled out some of Ottawa’s best cheap and cheerful Asian food.

After the especially sad departure of Fuschian earlier this year, Wei’s Noodle House moved in, applying the most scant of makeovers in the process. Now, the walls are yellow, the tablecloths are red, and some kitschy art hangs on one wall. I’ve made several visits to the humble place that seats about 25, hoping that the mojo of the previous restaurants had been transferred.

It hasn’t happened yet. Some dishes won me over — two, thick, robust soup specials in particular. But Wei’s has a ways to go to achieve excellence across the board.

I’ll return happily to Wei’s for its Spicy Satay Rice Noodle Soup ($9.50), served with beef, chicken or shrimp. Near as I can tell, there are two camps when it comes to making spicy satay soup, and Wei’s falls into the camp that makes it thick and peanutty, as opposed to simply brothy and chili-spiked. I liked the sludgy, nutty rusticity of Wei’s satay soup a lot, to say nothing of its just-done noodles, crisp, lightly pickled, julienned veg and strips of, in my case, chicken. I could see myself craving this comfort food, especially if I’m in the vicinity of Wei’s when the fall’s chill sets in.

The whiteboard by the door also announces the availability of Crab Soup with Fish Cakes and Pork in Betel Leaves ($10). I liked it almost as much as its spicy cousin, for similar reasons. It was earthy and filling, and the dill-flecked cakes and intriguing pork morsels were treats. Although a Vietnamese friend was less approving of this soup, calling it inauthentic because it lacked the right noodles and came without the usual leafy garnishes, I’m still a fan of it.

According to its online menu, Wei’s serves the usual scores of other kinds of Vietnamese soups, but we chose to jump from that category to sample noodles in drier settings.

Wei’s Pad Thai ($12), for example, was not bad, tangy rather than sweet, and texturally pleasing both noodle-wise and shrimp-wise. Malaysian noodles ($12) were less impressive. It’s salty-spicy sauce was not that special, and worse, the chicken we had chosen was pretty much missing in action. The vermicelli bowl ($10) needed more zing from its dressing and its grilled chicken was acceptable but nothing to write home about.

Better was a younger diner’s request for General Tao’s Chicken ($12) with its spicy sauce on the side (all the better to be ignored). Disparage chicken balls/nuggets all you want, but Wei’s were all homemade, and succulent and tasty inside and crispy outside. And the sauce, while not exactly made from scratch, was still good.

No appetizer lit our fires. Shrimp salad rolls ($4) were adequate, while shrimp/pork spring rolls were more disappointing. Onion rolls ($1.50) were a curiosity — deep-fried onions deep-fried in a spring roll wrapper — worth trying once. A cucumber salad ($4) was a fresh and pleasing array of contrasts, but it would have been better still had we opted for the shrimp add-on.

Interestingly, one of the departments in which Wei’s stood out was the desserts. At least I haven’t seen chocolate pâté with Coffee Crisp crumble ($5) at a Vietnamese restaurant before. It wasn’t bad. Nor was the serving of nicely deep-fried banana ($5), even if the whipped cream on the side came from a can.

It’s probably a bit unfair to judge Wei’s against its stellar predecessors. It has struck me, more generally, that food can seem worse when it fails to meet high expectations (and better when it’s surprisingly tasty).

But I still hope that Wei’s can raise the level of its adequate dishes to match what it does really well. Then it will truly join the ranks of the must-visit hole-in-the-walls that previously called 726 Somerset St. W. home.

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