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Bistro captures essence of Vietnamese fare

Visitors to the Green Leaf Bistro are greeted with a smile and a spacious room with wooden tables, clean lines and a colour scheme and lighting that recall the early 1960s. Slide into your seat and prepare to be impressed.
Green Leaf Bistro, 1684 Douglas Street.

Visitors to the Green Leaf Bistro are greeted with a smile and a spacious room with wooden tables, clean lines and a colour scheme and lighting that recall the early 1960s. Slide into your seat and prepare to be impressed.

Vietnamese food is light, but loaded with fresh, complex flavours. Chinese and French influences abound, and herbs and vegetables every bit as important to a Vietnamese chef as condiments. As with Thai cuisine, the result is a harmonious blend of hot, sweet, salty and sour notes, with no one flavour ever obvious. Here, a selection of several condiments on each table, including hoisin sauce and chili oil, lets diners customize the levels of salt, sweet or heat as desired.

The menu is extensive, offering almost 80 dishes and specials in broad categories including appetizers, soups, salads and noodle- and rice-based dishes, with an additional section dedicated to vegetarian diners.

I dropped by at lunch hoping for the bánh mì I had noticed advertised on the specials board outside periodically, but I picked the wrong day. If you're not afraid of white bread or have never had the pleasure of eating this dish -- a chunk of baguette smeared with mayonnaise, filled with pickled vegetables and meat or paté -- give it a shot as a refreshing change from a burger.

Instead, after scanning the dozen appetizers, I passed on a favourite, cha giò -- crisp, deep-fried spring rolls -- in favour of salad rolls. From the several varieties available, my choice was packed with shredded pork, vermicelli, leaf lettuce and iceberg lettuce. Served with a generous amount of mildly flavoured peanut sauce, this dish was a good example of the contrasting flavours and textures Vietnamese cuisine is known for.

I had ordered a second dish at the same time, but when I saw my server headed for my table, it was obvious to me what I was going to be having for dinner that night. Though I did my best to tackle a mountain of stir-fried chicken and vegetables with ginger sauce with steaming white rice (also available with mixed seafood) I had to admit defeat. I also had to go for a serious walk after lunch.

When I visited for dinner with my friend Jessica, it took a while to narrow the choices. Duly considered but saved for future visits were Vietnamese pancakes with pork, white shrimp and vegetables, and rolls stuffed with Chinese sausage, egg, jicama and dried shrimp. We chose pork and mushroom-stuffed rice crepes, paired with a generous serving of chilled vegetables and deliciously smoky, sticky barbecued quail. The only thing that could have improved this part of the meal would have been some finger bowls, but messy hands were a small price to pay.

A typical Vietnamese meal includes soup, and there are about 25 varieties available here. Although I have heard good things about the vegetarian spicy sour soup, pho is a good measuring stick for any Vietnamese restaurant, so we focused on the dozen or so choices in this category. We split a small bowl (still more than enough for two people) of meat broth with flat rice noodles and impossibly thin slices of rare, lean beef, which we garnished from the platter of sliced jalapeno, basil, chunks of lime and crunchy bean sprouts. It was superb.

Quail aren't very big, of course, and we figured splitting the soup was a judicious move, but though we had originally intended to order a couple of rice- or noodle-based dishes to share, we opted for just one. Given the generous portion of lemongrass-infused chicken that arrived with broken (think sticky) rice and lightly pickled vegetables, we made the right choice. The total price tag for dinner, including tea, before tip? Less than $42, including tax.

Though they haven't been open long, the Green Leaf Bistro is quickly developing a loyal following. Food is fresh and delicious and arrives quickly, and of course, the prompt and friendly service goes a long way, too. The one thing they need to work on is the beverage service. Though they offer a large range of exotic drinks, many of them are not available, which is frustrating if you've decided this is the day you want to have salty plum soda or a durian smoothie.