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Review: Sara's Bistro 

Ian McNulty finds a Riverbend staple is taking on a Vietnamese flair

click to enlarge At Sara's Bistro, lunch options include shrimp spring rolls and the soup and salad combination of pho and a sandwich. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • At Sara's Bistro, lunch options include shrimp spring rolls and the soup and salad combination of pho and a sandwich.

The curries and chutneys interspersed across the Asian/Creole menu at Sara's Bistro long offered a cache of Indian flavor in a town with precious little of it. That element is even harder to find now, however, as the fusion tides at this offbeat, sometimes off-kilter Riverbend restaurant wends farther from the Ganges River, closer to the Mekong and, at times, dips into the Mississippi.

  There are bubble-crusted, potato-stuffed samosas here, and cardamom-scented saffron rice serves as a bed for a lamb shank smothered in deep red curry. But the new tack at Sara's is more about the Viet salad, a crisp heap of sprouts, cabbage and fish sauce with shrimp crackers that rattle and burst on the tongue like Pop Rocks, or the Cajun-style deep-fried Cornish hen with cranberry sauce seeping out and bok choy on the side. There's also new lunch service and the sandwich/soup combo can bring a French dip and a bowl of pho with a robust, dark broth.

  Mac Rahman has operated a restaurant at this address since the late 1980s, beginning with the straightforward curry house Old Calcutta. In 1996, he and chef Ganesh Ayyengar took Sara's into the '90s fusion craze. That's basically how things stayed until last fall, when changes came frequently. A new consulting chef came in, promising to modernize the place with local sourcing, craft cocktails and other hallmarks of the moment. He left Sara's within a few months, however, and the restaurant seemed stuck about halfway through its refit.

  More recently, chef Cristina Trinh has taken the helm, and she's getting Sara's up to full speed, but also is taking a new course. One telltale dish is silken tofu in a spicy, Thai-style coconut milk curry. Another is like a two-part ode to Peking duck, featuring a confit leg and chopped, roasted meat wrapped in pancakes. Grand Marnier spiked the whipped cream over donut bread pudding one night, and on another evening, the soup was a smooth, mellow blend of sweet crabmeat and hobak, a Korean pumpkin. This kitchen is stretching out and clearly having fun.

  For all the new energy, however, Sara's sometimes seems at frayed ends. The aged fixtures and furniture seem retro now, and waitstaff often seemed too new to the job, struggling with wine service and unable to offer much guidance on the unconventional menu.

  But for a restaurant with its considerable mileage, Sara's effort to upgrade is promising. Produce is fresh, many of the meats have traceable paths from Louisiana farms and the new lunch program is fast, inexpensive and highly satisfying.

  It grates a bit to watch a rare local Indian option shrink in favor of trends we can find at many restaurants. But while some of the trappings are familiar, the chef's approach is personal and distinctive and the restaurant's DNA remains resiliently quirky. That combination should keep things interesting.

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