I first ate at Saju, a newish Theater District French-Vietnamese restaurant, the night after Fred Thompson told Jay Leno he was officially running for President. The parallels weren’t lost on me. The senator-cum-actor had already campaigned through the summer, while disingenuously avoiding the critical attention that comes with being a “declared” candidate. Similarly, Saju opened its doors in June, yet as of mid-September it still purports to serve a “preopening” menu.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for restaurants—or the Broadway shows that surround Saju—to launch in preview mode. But if you’re in your fourth month of taking money from the public, it’s only fair that the public is allowed to judge what they’re getting. In Saju’s case, like Thompson’s current polling, this is middle-of-the-pack, all-over-the-map fare, at best.
The balky start seemingly stems in part from kitchen upheaval. Owner Philippe Bernard, who is also behind the adjacent Osteria al Doge, has already phased out one Nguyen (Thao, who had experience at the first-rate Bao Noodles chainlet) for another (Hung, who spent time at Café Boulud). No surprise then that Hung Nguyen’s French culinary background comes into play: There are just a handful of traditional Vietnamese dishes (such as rote spring rolls, replicated exactly at 100 less expensive places, complete with lettuce wrap and vinegar sauce), compared with a dozen-plus Continental dishes, served with a hint of Indo-Chinese influence.
The problem: The French-leaning dishes—pork loin with pickled mustard greens, grilled skirt steak with red-wine soy sauce, seared tuna salad with grapefruit—bore. For example, the juicy yet bland crisp-skinned quarter chicken tasted as though it had been gently roasted, rather than seared, as the menu promised. The anise-ginger sauce that sold me on the dish was an afterthought, a thin pool that provided little more than a faint accent.
While there’s little original about French-Vietnamese fusion, almost redundant given the strong colonial influence, it beats standard Vietnamese or subpar French. On paper, at least. Roasted black cod in a coconut curry came on a bed of unpleasantly chewy noodles the consistency of seaweed. The meat on the pork ribs, slathered in mint, honey and Dijon mustard, had the texture of a mushy pot roast. I optimistically ordered a plate of bean sprouts with garlic chives, hoping that the sides would yield something more original. Alas, I’ve tasted water with more flavor.
I did enjoy dessert, especially a spiced banana-filled spring roll with caramel coconut sauce that displayed the kind of inventiveness I’d hoped for during the meal proper. The kitchen can’t be entirely blamed for a clumsy debut. Aside from safe decor—ceiling fans and exposed brick, token Buddhas and a gong, saffron-painted walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto 44th Street—very little here works right. The wine list has an obvious lack of floral selections that complement Vietnamese food, the servers were uninformed, and I even got two mosquito bites during one meal.
It’s simply hard to justify returning, whenever it actually “opens,” considering that others of the same ilk, most notably Drew Nieporent’s year-old Mai House, do this genre better. Hints of irrelevance are everywhere: The website for Hotel Mela (which houses Saju) bypasses its own eatery altogether in its list of recommended restaurants, and while signing a bill during one visit, my Saju-supplied pen pointed me elsewhere—it advertised the perennially popular Odeon.