Dining » Dining Lead

Pretty on the Outside

Dazzling décor and swift service upstage the cuisine at Gia Lai

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There are no fewer than three dapper staffers waiting at the hostess stand when we cross the threshold. We're effusively greeted by all and asked to follow one to our table – but not before being told about a wonderful drink special. The walk may be short, but it is by no means dull. To our left, a handsome wine cage rises to the ceiling. Above our heads, a chandelier drips with crystal. At the far end of the room, a contemporary water feature captivates a gaggle of youths. Upon arrival, our booth is as cushy as an Oldsmobile, the table is thick-cut granite, and the tableware is mod and sharp.

If you think the above description sounds a bit incongruous for a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, you're not alone. Since opening earlier this summer, Gia Lai has been turning heads more for its splashy décor than perhaps for its food — a collection of Southeast Asian staples. That might make sense, given the location: Legacy Village, Beachwood's posh lifestyle center.

Service here is swift, friendly, and helpful. When we mentioned to our server one evening that we would be sharing starters, she suggested having the kitchen split our dishes. It was a welcome gesture, resulting not only in two plates of chicken and cabbage salad but also two portions of crab and asparagus soup.

Obliging service doesn't make up for middling food, however. If there was any crab in that soup ($8/bowl), it went largely undetected. In truth, the soup is little more than overpriced egg drop with a smattering of sliced asparagus. As for the chicken and cabbage salad ($9.50) — a refreshing and substantial Vietnamese standard — the dish traditionally is as much about texture as taste, thanks to the interplay of finely shredded chicken and finely shredded veggies. Gia Lai skips the shredding process in favor of large pieces of sliced meat, a decision that bogs down the entire dish.

To a lesser extent, the same shortcut impairs an otherwise fine bowl of egg noodle soup ($12.50), an entrée-size brew brimming with chicken, thin egg noodles, bean sprouts, and herbs. Despite a menu description calling for shredded chicken, the broth contains large slices of cooked white meat.

Three versions of pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup, also are available. An order of the mixed-meat pho ($11.95) — with lean eye of round, meatballs, flank, and tendon — seemed to be missing the tendon. (That version has since been replaced with one that omits the tendon altogether.) The broth is a touch sweet, but it also possesses a deep bouquet of exotic spice. All noodle bowls come with the usual sidecar of bean sprouts, jalapeños, basil, and lime.

On an earlier visit, the grilled-chicken lettuce wrap appetizer ($7.95) garnered no shortage of praise. We spooned hot and saucy chopped chicken, mixed with rice noodles, herbs and crunchy water chestnuts, onto crisp lettuce leaves, dunked them in a flavorful sauce, and devoured them. While sparsely filled, the Vietnamese crêpe ($11.95) sports a thin, crisp, and pleasantly toothsome pancake perfumed with coconut milk. It is folded around a handful of shrimp, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs. On the side is a dip redolent of fish sauce.

Noodles find their way out of the bowl and onto the plate in dishes like pad Thai, curry-scented Singapore noodles, and the traditional chilled vermicelli noodle dishes topped with grilled pork, beef, or shrimp. They also show up as a crispy fried base for meat and veggie stir-fries. The crispy egg noodles with shrimp ($15), for example, features shrimp, carrots, water chestnuts, and (lots and lots of) bean sprouts in a wan gravy that tastes like thickened chicken stock. We attempted to bolster it with Sriracha and soy.

More mainstream Asian dishes, like orange chicken, black pepper beef, and chicken curry are also on the menu, as are banh mi sandwiches during lunch.

As for those great drink specials: show up on Tuesday or Thursday and all martinis are just $4 — more than half off their regular price. Given the swank surroundings, the cocktails seem right at home.

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