Published March 08. 2012 4:00AM Updated April 02. 2012 10:41AM
In these same pages a while back, after visiting the restaurant Miss Saigon, I explored the phenomenon of pho, a dish that is irresistible both for its flavors and a little word play. Pho fever, pho-natics ? it's as if the Vietnamese beef noodle soup were headlining a world tour. And now, in the Groton Shoppers Mart plaza, there is Phantasia.
Phantasia is a surprisingly bright and modern restaurant that offers a wide variety of Chinese dishes - Egg foo young, moo shi, szechuan, kung pao, lo mein, chow mein and more. The Vietnamese menu is smaller, but it's a good way to sample the cuisine for those who aren't familiar with it, especially pho. I'm not typically a fan of mixing cultures in one restaurant, but Phantasia, which opened in January, pretty much pulls it off. The Chinese dishes we had were solid, and the Vietnamese were also enjoyable; all were big portions at good prices.
While there's nothing wrong with decorating an Asian restaurant with images of Buddha, dragons and lanterns, Phantasia gets points for updating the ubiquitous look, with red walls and a small bar (for eating - the place is BYOB) looking into the kitchen. Don't worry, though, kids; there's still a fish tank.
The place was busy on a Saturday night, with a variety of customers eating in and taking out. The menu is a little bit overwhelming, but the staff is happy to help. Here were the highlights:
• Pho ($8-$9.75, depending on the ingredients): The soup - which came in a bowl you could fit your head into - had a rich and meaty broth, though it had less complexity than can come from cinnamon and anise notes. The beef was tender, the tripe chewy, and there were plenty of noodles to make it a filling meal. The bowl came with a variety of ingredients so you could doctor it up to your liking with basil, sprouts, lime and hot sauce.
• Chao tom (pounded shrimp hash grilled on a skewer of sugarcane) ($10.99): I knew from previous Vietnamese eating experience how to take the rice paper, soak it in hot water to soften it, and make a little wrap out of the shrimp pieces and other ingredients - lettuce, basil, cucumber and noodles - and drizzle it with the clear sweet-vinegary dipping sauce.
It was fun, as I remembered, though the rice wrappers were stubbornly sticking together this time. The shrimp, which is similar to the consistency of a meatball, was already cut off the sugar cane (I prefer it on), but it was nicely sweet and salty.
• Bo tai chanh (marinated raw beef served cold) ($9.50): We expected this to be served more like a carpaccio, with slices thinly laid out, but the beef was piled up, marinated in citrus juice and tossed with raw onions. The crisp onions balanced the pliable texture of the meat and added strong flavor.
• Hot basil duck ($10.95): Recommended by our server, the duck was boneless, not crispy, but tender and flavorful amid a crunchy mix of onions, celery, red and green peppers and chili peppers in a slightly sweet brown sauce. It had some heat, but wasn't super-spicy, if that's what you're looking for.
• The Yu-Hsiang chicken ($8.75), mixed with vegetables and thinly sliced chicken in a spicy garlic sauce, was good but not as spicy as we'd hoped.
• The Singapore Chow Mai ($7.95), thin noodles fried with shrimp, roast pork and vegetables, was well made, with just the right amount of curry.
• The Goi cuon, or summer rolls ($4.75), weren't the best we'd ever had, however. The soft rice wrapper filled with shrimp, vermicelli noodles, lettuce and basil was too heavy on lettuce and light on flavor. The sauce could have been more peanutty, too.
All in all, Phantasia is off to a good start. Whether it's those crazy pho fiends or just people who like good Chinese food, the place seems to already have some fans. It's nice to have a place that can satisfy a craving for so many Asian foods.