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Middle of the Pho-d 

Quality ingredients form a solid base for Star Anise's Vietnamese food, but its sauces are wanting.

The star attraction at Star Anise, in the former Med space on Barrington, is the Pho. The national dish of Vietnam, Pho is anoodle soup that's consumed any time of day, loaded with beef andvegetables in a pungent broth, and served with condiments likelime, Thai basil, been sprouts, hoisin and chili sauce on the side,so that it maybe dressed up or down to the diner'spersonaltaste.

I've had the pho ($8.50) here before, and I quite like it. Thebeef is tender, the ingredients fresh and the broth particularlyflavourful, even before the addition of the extras. Tonight, we'rehere to sample other dishes on the predominantly Vietnamese menu(although there are Thai specialties,like Tom Yum soup and yellowcurry chicken available).

Star Anise is understated in decor, but the punch of warm colouron the walls and the terra cotta floor tiles add warmth, as doesthe one brick wall. We step up to the booth area that runs alongthe far wall and quickly settle on our meals. And we quicklyrealize that this is not the place for any privateconversation---the acoustics here allow us to be privy toeveryone's business. (Why would someone with a fish allergy eat ata place where fish sauce is a staple? Must that guy in the farcorner leave his cell phone ringer on during dinner? And soon.)

For starters, we have a classic spring roll ($1.85) andThai-style deep fried tofu ($3.99). The spring roll is delicious,with a crispy fried wrapper tightly wound around minced pork,shredded carrot and glass noodles. I'm not too fond of theaccompanying fish sauce, though---it's very sweet with nary a chiliflake to spice it up a little. The deep-fried tofu has beenprepared with a delicate hand---there's a very light coating overwedges of firm tofu, fried just long enough. The coconut sauce fordipping is all right, if a little forgettable.

It's not long before our cheerful server appears with maincourses. Pineapple Fried Rice ($10.99) and Spring Roll and PanFried Shrimp with Vermicelli ($10.99) are both huge plates of food(so large we take the leftovers home). The rice dish isoutstanding---not the least bit greasy. The rice has been friedwith small cubes of chicken, tiny tasty shrimp, vegetables andcashews. A sprinkling of fresh cilantro adds a bright flavour.

The vermicelli bowl is just as good: a mound of noodles toppedwith bean sprouts, julienned cucumber and carrot, shredded iceberglettuce and crushed peanuts. The plentiful shrimp have been sauteedin a generous amount of garlic.

Although we're full, we can't resist trying the dessert ($4.99),a banana spring roll with mango sauce. Crisp on the outside, withsoft banana inside, it's a contrast of textures. A scoop of vanillaice cream is on the side, and the mango sauce is drizzled overeverything, which is unfortunate, because the mango sauce is notsweet, as one might expect, but extremely salty. Very off-putting,it spoils the otherwise interesting dessert.

The main components of the dishes at Star Anise are all good,full of great flavours and fresh ingredients. But it seems asthough the sauces fail to deliver---the too-sweet fish sauce, thebland coconut sauce, the salty mango sauce. This puts Star Anisesquarely in the mid-range of restaurants---neither exceptionallygood nor horribly bad; just a middle-of-the-road place to eat.

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