Green Papaya

600 E Pine St, 323-1923. Lunch daily 11 am-4 pm; dinner Tues-Sun 4-10 pm, Fri-Sat 4-11 pm.

Bambuza Vietnamese Bistro

820 Pike St, 219-5555.

Open Sun-Thurs 11 am-11 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-11 pm.

It's not that I prefer squalor. I know of a certain Vietnamese restaurant in Pioneer Square that's dominated by a loquacious canary, caged in the corner, who pelts customers with bits of things from across the room--which explains, even though I work across the street from it, why I never go there. Nor would I ever think of eating at Osaka Teriyaki in the transactional hurly-burly of Second and Pike. But screaming birds and dealers notwithstanding, I do like restaurants that remind me (or at least let me pretend) that I live in a real city.

And besides, a restaurant whose theme is Vietnam has a lot to work with. But last week I tried two new Vietnamese restaurants--Capitol Hill's Green Papaya and downtown's Bambuza--and in both places I felt like I had been plunked down not in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City but in the home furnishings department of Target. Under different ownership but outwardly indistinguishable, these two restaurants look like franchises in a chain decorated out of the Crate & Barrel catalog--with curvy light fixtures and the funky, earthy, awful palette of the Ralph Lauren brand. Why is it okay for a restaurant that pretends to take its cue from Vietnam to conform to the very worst of Western standards? Aren't we the ones who lost that war?

This is where my mind goes--noticing the things you can't eat, like light fixtures and paint--when a place's food is insufficiently interesting. The service at Green Papaya is friendly, but it's marred by the general insistence that everything on the menu is great. The lemongrass chicken? Great! The green papaya salad? Great! This is in no way helpful. As it happens, the lemongrass chicken ($12), played up on the menu as the "house favorite," is decidedly not great: It's an unpleasant platter of fatty, dry dark meat so sloppily prepared that each chunk of chicken has a quivering lump of fat clinging to its underside. Bland and slimy, it's like something you would encounter at a dicey suburban food court--for half the price. The eponymous green papaya salad ($10), although artfully presented with a crown of butterflied prawns, is also disappointing; it's doused too heavily in lime juice and fish sauce, causing it to taste slippery, limp, and made yesterday. In the course of a large meal for three, only two items stood out: the Bò Lá Lôt ($7), an appetizer of dense, flavorful beef rolled in betel leaves, then grilled; and the Da Lat tenderloin ($18), an entrée special also starring beef, braised with red wine and served in a garlicky broth along with potatoes, baby carrots, and asparagus.

Bambuza, which opened two weeks ago, is less expensive, and better. The menu features some identical items, such as a green papaya salad ($9)--shredded green papaya, peanuts, carrots, shrimp, lime--that's fresher and less heavy than the green papaya salad at Green Papaya.

The menu is a work in progress, and it's slightly out of step with the kitchen, so it doesn't always describe what you're going to get. The crisp vegetarian spring rolls--sautéed mushrooms, tofu, and bean thread noodles wrapped in wonton skins--were in fact not flash-fried or crisp, but soft, thick, and delicious (an accident of preparation I welcomed). My dinner companion raved about the Thai curried chicken entrée--simmering hot and a touch spicy, served up in a bowl of silky coconut curry. (I don't like coconut and I don't like curry.) I opted instead for the turmeric crepes ($12), which is despite its name singular, resembling an enormous omelet splayed across the plate. Packed with fresh bean sprouts and succulent chunks of shrimp and pork, the thing is eaten by breaking off pieces with your chopsticks, wrapping the portions in lettuce leaves, and dipping them in a tangy sauce. It's tasty, but it seems a shame to massacre it. "It's very beautiful," the server said when I ordered it. "It's almost so beautiful you don't want to eat it." In other words, Bambuza manages to do what Green Papaya doesn't: It marries beauty with substance.