A new place just opened this month, so I had to give it a try! Since I’ve been in Utsunomiya, the building this restaurant has been in had always been empty, so I was surprised when I suddenly saw people in there working paint and furniture. I assumed, since this is Utsunomiya after all, that this would just be one more bar to add to the long list of bars, and may not be worth visiting too frequently. It was to my surprise that it turned out to be a Vietnamese restaurant.
I went in the evening for dinner after work and some errands. You can see the entire restaurant with its plush red chairs and warm lighting from the outside, and besides a few Saigon Beers dotting the shelves with progressively changing lights, nothing about the place strikes you as being Vietnamese. It really looks like your average restaurant with no particular theme besides “posh.” Upon entering, I was greeted by the waitress who asked if I would like to sit at a table or at the bar (I guess I wasn’t entirely wrong when I thought this would be another alcoholic watering hole in the area), and then checked to make sure I could read the Japanese menu. I sat down at one of the plush red chairs, although I’m not sure if they have an English menu or not. In any case, if you can’t read Japanese, most of the foods have their Vietnamese (and therefore romanized) equivalent next to it, so although there are no pictures (which are helpful anywhere you go), when in doubt, Google it.
The menu is decently wide. They have your standard selection of soups and stews, banh mi, desserts, and bar foods, among a few extra items. I settled on a coconut avocado smoothie and the standard beef pho–best to evaluate a new restaurant by eating something I’m already somewhat familiar with.
At first I was pretty happy with the prices–most of their items are under ￥1000, so on the cheaper side of a restaurant dinner. However, once the food comes, it really isn’t too much bang for your buck. The smoothie was very small for its price (around ￥600), and while it wasn’t necessarily bad, it wasn’t exactly good either, and not anything I would buy again. More than anything, it was the gritty texture–I assume from the coconut?–that got me. The pho, while clocking in at only about ￥800, also was a bit disappointing. I was still hungry after eating the whole thing, and while again it’s not exactly bad, it’s also far from the best pho I’ve had up to this point. The broth is a bit on the plainer side, and the amount of meat (along with the amount of sides of cilantro, peppers and lime) is on the low side. There were a lot of vegetables, so I give it props for being one of the healthier phos I’ve had, but I also don’t buy pho to help with a diet. However, I will point out that the rice noodles were great. I’d only had this exact type one time before in another posh-ish Vietnamese restaurant in Tokyo, and it reminds me a bit of a Vietnamese udon. The noodles are flat but not without volume and perfectly chewy–much better than anything I ever had in America (although, as I have not yet been to Vietnam, I can’t say what is standard for their rice noodles).
As disappointed with what I ate so far, what will make me go in again is the atmosphere and the staff. The chairs are comfortable, the decorations and lighting are pleasant, and the music is also a surprise. No Vietnamese, very little Japanese–most of it was chill, relaxing American music, like Keri Noble and some other soft pop songs that brought me back to my childhood in the 90s. All in all, it’s a very relaxing environment, perfect for winding down after a long day at work.
In addition to the physical surroundings, the staff are also very friendly. The waitress chatted with me a bit, asking where I was from, and I asked about the owner. Although they have some Vietnamese staff, the owner is a Japanese man whose dream was fulfilled by opening this restaurant after backpacking around the world. Indeed, behind the cash register, you can see a big yellow daruma with both eyes filled in.
While I’m not sure if I’ll eat dinner here too much, this definitely seems like a place I could order some tea or dessert in and work on some projects or read a book in the evening. Or maybe just chat with the staff a little bit more–maybe next time I will give up the fluffy red chairs and take that bar seat.
栃木県宇都宮市中央3-3-3 JSL中央ビル 1F
Hours: Tues.-Thurs. & Sun. 11:00 am – 10:00 pm; Fri.-Sat. 11:00 am – 11:00 pm. (Closed Monday)
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.