January 15, 2010

Vietnamese buffet has something for everyone
by Beck Ireland

In the Midwest, buffet-style lunches and dinners for “exotic” cuisine, such as Chinese and Indian, have proven successful. They can transform an intimidating menu into the visually accessible (Oh, carrots!) and also provide an opportunity to sample a variety of different dishes (Too spicy? Then go back for something else). Recently, Sung Son Vietnamese Bistro in Westport has artfully translated its extensive menu into a lunch and dinner buffet sure to satisfy timid and experienced palates alike.

Quality has not suffered from the bistro’s conversion. In the main room, a cart of chafing dishes, the heart of the buffet, is as colorful as an artist’s palette. Here, diners fill their plates with fresh, fragrant mainstays of Vietnamese cuisine, such as soft spring rolls filled with rice noodles, lettuce, mint and shrimp, fried vegetarian spring rolls with carrots and cabbage, green papaya salad made up of thinly sliced strings of papaya, carrots, daikon, mint and basil lightly dressed with a tamarind lime dressing, melt-in-your-mouth breaded sweet potato fries, fried tofu with tomatoes in a garlic sauce with fresh basil, a savory roast pork dish and chicken salad with sliced chicken breast, cabbage, daikon, carrots, mint, basil and crushed peanuts.

Some already familiar buffet staples are also on offer here, including General T’sao’s chicken, a sweet and spicy Chinese menu favorite; chicken fried rice, the Chinese comfort food; stir-fried vegetables and crispy and creamy Crab Rangoon.

Although there are a few spicy dishes on the buffet, the food at Sung Son is flavored by a variety of different seasonings — not just chili flakes. Aromatic garlic, basil, lemon grass, ginger and cilantro are used liberally throughout. Whereas these flavors can be strong tasting, they won’t overwhelm and they certainly won’t burn your tongue or leave you gasping for refills of your water glass. However, those that get only a soapy taste from herbal cilantro would do best to stay away from the papaya salad or any other fresh dish it coats.

The stars of Vietnamese food are often the dipping sauces, and when ordering off the menu, the selection and amount can be stingy. Not so here. The sauces — chili paste, peanut and fish — are available to patrons in generous help-yourself portions at the end of the chafing dish cart. Any promises or threats of drinking them separately could quite literally be fulfilled. However, that wouldn’t leave room for Sung Son’s made-to-order options; a noodle bar available during both lunch ($8.99) and dinner and rice crepes served only at dinner ($12.99).

The noodle bar includes an almost infinite variety of noodles and ingredients. Pho (rice noodles), Bun (vermicelli), Mi (egg noodles), and Hu Tieu (clear noodles) are among the noodle choices and can be paired with seafood, steak, chicken or vegetarian bases and broths. The bowls are brought steaming hot to your table, along with the traditional plate of condiments that include either fresh basil and cilantro, bean sprouts, chili and slices of lime or crushed peanuts, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber slices, chopped lettuce and fish sauce.

The rice crepe bar includes just as many choices. They can be made with shrimp, pork, chicken or a vegetarian option and include mung bean and bean sprouts. They’re served with lettuce and fish sauce (optional for the vegetarian selection).

If vegetarians feel limited by the lack of items on the buffet, they can still order from the dozen or so meatless items on the bistro’s menu. Just remember to ask to hold the fish sauce. In addition, loyal followers of the restaurant’s famous hot pots can also order any one of the three steamy ginger- and lemon grass-broth soup concoctions off the menu.

Despite the serve-yourself attitude engendered by a buffet, the service at Sung Son is attentive and friendly. Drinks are promptly refilled and the made-to-order options brought steaming hot to your table. Also, unlike some buffets that let the food sit too long so it dries out or gets down to the dregs, the chafing dishes here are kept fresh and hot. In addition, the swanky minimalist décor (cylindrical blown-glass lampshades over the bar, for instance) and mood lighting reveals a higher-end purpose than most buffet restaurants.

Cheap date night here won't look cheap at all. Sung Son is the best of both worlds.

Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.Ireland@gmail.com.

Sung Son
4116 Pennsylvania
Kansas City, MO 64111
(816) 931-0670

Mon. - Sat. 11 am-10pm
Sun. 12 pm -5 pm

(photos by Tim Nord)

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD: ***
PRICE: $-$$

Key: $-under $10 • $$-$10 to $20 • $$$-over $20