Gobi grills its fresh food with a deft hand

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Why: The most distinctive part of dining at Gobi Mongolian Grill restaurant is that you create your own stir fry by choosing ingredients and quantities, and you make your own sauce by combining basic sauce elements in order to end up with a custom creation tailored to your appetite.

The grilling is done for you at an open round grill big enough to accommodate several meals at once.

Owner Daniel Lee says freshness sets Gobi apart from others. Nothing is prepped more than 12 hours in advance, everything is made from scratch and sauces are made in-house as well — including the sweet and sour. Lee has also given Gobi a more upscale look than his other restaurants, Golden Tent Mongolian Grill near Westfield Vancouver mall and another in Salem, Ore.

Atmosphere: The building, vacated by Vesta Restaurant & Lounge approximately two and a half years ago, hasn’t undergone any major remodeling. Instead Lee has taken the existing space and created a buffet atmosphere by incorporating mostly booth seating, adding a buffet bar, closing off the kitchen and adding the open grill. A few décor details finish up the transformation and create a relaxed family-style dining mood.

What I tried: My dining companion and I visited for dinner. We made our meat and vegetable selections and then proceeded to the sauce bar. My dining companion chose a snow cod base and I chose a chicken base. We both chose various vegetables.

Above the sauce bar there is a chart with Hot, Medium, and Mild recipe directions. These are available for diners’ convenience, but diners are free to invent their own. Directions for classic sauces such as Kung-Pao, Teriyaki and Sweet & Sour can be found on recipe cards at the start of the ingredient bar.

After we made our selections and combined the different sauce components for our dishes, we took them to the grill and handed them over. They were grilled fairly quickly.

I also tried the fried rice and orange chicken from the pre-made hot selections, Asian pear and kumquats from the fruit and salad bar, hot and sour soup and egg flower soup. A bowl of rice and stack of rice flour pancakes were included with our meal as well as a scoop of ice cream.

The raw ingredients that went into our stir fry creations were notably fresh. The next most memorable part of my meal was how precisely my food was grilled. The vegetables had a snap left and the chicken, which is sliced thin, was tender.

I’m certain I could have done better with my sauce. As it was, I asked for assistance and ended up with too much salt. My dining companion also asked for help, and his very appetizing sauce was a good fit for the ingredients he had chosen. I concluded that it would be best for diners to follow the recipes or beware.

The hot and sour soup, with so much black pepper that I could see it, was more peppery and less sour than the typical hot and sour soup. The egg flower soup is almost identical in flavor and consistency to soup I’ve had at Happy Family Restaurant in Vancouver.

I was disappointed in the temperature of the pre-made buffet items. They would have been more appetizing if they had been hot, instead of merely warm.

The ice cream was a tasty end to our meal.

Other menu highlights beyond what I tried: In addition to snow cod and chicken, the stir fry meat selections include beef, imitation crab, lamb, pork and shrimp (not de-veined).

Other observations: I found the service at Gobi to be friendly and attentive. Given the former fine dining backdrop of Vesta which Lee had to start with, the change to a buffet has been successfully accomplished with the upscale character intact.

Cost: Lunch (until 4 p.m.) is $7.90; dinner is $11.85. Kids 2 and younger eat for free. Kids 3-12 top out at $5.75 for lunch and $8.95 for dinner.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

Telephone: 360-953-8264.

Where: 14387 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

Health Score: Gobi Mongolian Grill received a score of 0 on September 22. Zero is a perfect score, and Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.