Peter Arenseberg is not with us this issue, as he's been spending more and more time at a secluded abbey/wine cellar in Bourgogne, "re-adjusting my palate sensors," as he put it, hinting that he had spent so much time in Moscow that he was becoming too forgiving to restaurants he would otherwise "discombibe with my own bare tonsils"... or am I putting words into his mouth? Arenseberg may be the finest restaurant reviewer in the English language today, but he is a notoriously cheap bastard who once forced a waiter to reduce a bill by six rubles after said waiter took away his bread plate before he could dip his wet thumb into the crust crumbs.
It's too bad Arenseberg chose to leave this issue, because the restaurant, O!Chen, is so transparently awful that he would have had a field day tearing it apart.
First of all, the name. Perhaps they meant to call it "Paddy O'Chen" -- after all, it's next door to Silver's -- but they switched at the last second when the interior designer got ahold of a shipload of cheap bamboo mats that they could hang from the rafters.
O!Chen is located down in a basement, so you have to watch your head as you navigate towards the cheap patio furniture that will soon be your home. Shitty Russian pop blasted into the dining room -- and not a tape, mind you, but Russkoe Radio.
"My god, we're at a shawarma stand," my dining partner observed.
The prices looked somewhat reasonable. We ordered shrimp spring rolls (150r), a smallish portion of edible, if crab-salad-like rolls that bore no resemblance to real Vietnamese spring rolls, which tend to be the size of a thumb, crisp and pork. Then we each ordered a "Pho," the Vietnamese word for soup (185r). Real Vietnamese Pho is a meal unto itself, offering a surprising array of spices and flavors. Not O!Chen's Pho. I had chicken, my partner had beef. Mine tasted like Gallina chicken broth, some chicken, packaged rice noodles and a bunch of scallions thrown in. It had the flavor of, well, water.
By this point we were appalled. With the tables empty of patrons, the only thing we had to look at was this Vietnamese guy who walked past our table on cue once every ten minutes. We wondered if he was being paid to give the place authenticity, then opined that perhaps if the owners let us shoot at him with salt pellet guns every time he walked past, the restaurant might attract more clients.
For the main, I got chicken breast in "nege," which was just flavorless boiled chicken atop mushroom gravy with some frozen vegetables on the side (207r). My partner got the "grill on lemon sticks" (293r), two lyula-kebabs dressed up as corn dogs on lemon stalks.
If this is "Vietnamese food for the Russian palate," then why bother pretending? Why not just serve real shawarmas and cheburiki, and just call them "Shawarma po-Karibbski" or "Cheburaki po-tailandskii"? At least we wouldn't be fooled into thinking that maybe, at last, the Russian palate had crawled out of the village that it came from. Let's face it: everything about a Russian is noble...except for that barren palate of theirs. Next time, we're sticking with Georgian food.