It seems odd to drive to the Far West End to eat at a place called the Far East Bistro. The restaurant is in a retail strip just west of Short Pump Town Center. Perhaps it is too far off the beaten path, though. Both times I visited, it was empty. This is unfortunate, because I found the food to be freshly prepared and generally tasty.
The Far East Bistro serves Vietnamese as well as Chinese cuisine. But the bistro label doesn't seem to fit. I think of a bistro as small, unpretentious and having a bar element. While the Far East Bistro is not pretentious, it also isn't particularly small and, although there is a bar, it lacks a bar-like atmosphere.
Situated on a corner, the place is divided into two sections — a very open area with tables and chairs on the right and a more intimate space with several booths and a few tables and chairs on the left. I opted for the booths; their padded benches and wooden dividers carved with dragons invited us to linger. The orange walls and soft lighting add warmth and sophistication.
During my two visits, I shared three appetizers with my friends — the crispy spring roll, the scallion pancakes and the steamed dumplings. The spring roll was so small and slender that I would have thought there would be two in an order. The outside was crispy, but the filling lacked character and seemed to consist primarily of cabbage. The scallion pancakes were plentiful, not very crisp and devoid of the mild onion flavor I was expecting. Both appetizers were bland. The steamed dumplings, on the other hand, were delicious. Often, dumplings are mostly wonton wrappers with little filling. These were just the opposite. There was so much shredded pork, coated with a rich barbecue sauce, nestled inside the wrappers that they could have sufficed for a meal.
The soups were nice, too. The broth was simple, light and clear, an indication that it had not been overly cooked or boiled. The eggs in the egg-drop soup were soft, as though they had been swirled into the hot broth just before serving. The wontons in the wonton soup were plump and not soggy, again indicating that they had not been left to simmer forever in the broth.
On my first visit, the entrées that followed the disappointing spring roll and scallion pancakes were better than we expected. The General Tso's chicken was sticky-sweet and spicy. The large chicken pieces were not overly dredged in cornstarch, so they did not have a heavy coating once they were fried. The mild flavor of the tender meat was a good balance for the sauce that tasted of ginger, garlic and hot peppers.
Because the Far East Bistro also serves Vietnamese cuisine, we opted for the barbecue platter. It's huge, the perfect dish to share if two people can't decide between chicken, beef or shrimp. Charcoal-grilled beef, chicken and shrimp are placed over rice noodles along with fresh cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and basil. You decide what ingredients you want to wrap in rice paper (the same stuff that's used for spring rolls). You then can dip your creation in nuoc cham (made with fish sauce) or the peanut sauce. Each person gets his or her favorite, and everyone is happy.
The other entrées we sampled were the shrimp with broccoli and the Hunan beef. The shrimp were sweet and perfectly pink. Loads of crisp broccoli, mushrooms and onions shared the plate, with everything bathed lightly in the soy-garlic-ginger sauce. The Hunan beef had a deep flavor, its richness broken up by the spiciness of the red peppers. Water chestnuts and carrots added sweetness and crunch. In hindsight, I realized we should have specified that we preferred steamed rice rather than fried rice.
Dessert is not one of the restaurant's strengths. We did try the fried ice cream, that staple of Mexican restaurants. The ice cream is encased in a wonton wrapper and then fried. The wrapper was not cooked enough to be crispy and I found the honey sauce far too sweet.
I was, however, very happy to receive my requisite fortune cookie at the very end. "You will have many adventures ahead." And you can create your own by heading west to the Far East Bistro.
201 Towne Center West Blvd., Suites 701-702; 360-7076
Prices: Appetizers $2 to $12. Soups $2 to $7. Entrées $8 to $27. Desserts $2 to $5.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.