In Search of the Unicorn 

It styles itself "Pan-Asian," but stick to the Vietnamese food at Berkeley's attractive Unicorn.

Unicorn may call itself pan-Asian, but on my first visit I was hard-pressed to find a non-Vietnamese dish on the menu. At least, one that my tablemates would let me order.

"There's a Malaysian curry chicken with potatoes," I pointed out. Everyone scrutinized their menu more closely. "Cantonese sea bass?" got nixed as well. Looking over the other five or six non-Vietnamese entrées, we finally settled on spicy eggplant with black bean sauce. Sure enough, it tasted like the one I order from my local Chinese takeout.

Once I called owner Kiet Truong to talk about the restaurant, though, I discovered that Unicorn's fusion isn't just a marketing gimmick. Some of it represents Chao Zhou cuisine cooked by southern Chinese living in Vietnam. Truong's mother, who originally hails from China and now runs the kitchen at Unicorn, owned her first restaurant in Vietnam. Since coming to the United States she has cooked at a number of Asian restaurants, including Le Cheval.

Unicorn opened seven months ago, and Truong has put a lot of labor and love into the former Dollar Ten store to turn it into an attractive restaurant. It's not your normal Telegraph Avenue student eatery, worn down by the impact of thousands of book-stuffed backpacks. Window blinds and a flowing white curtain block out the sounds and sights of the tatty street. Indoors, all is calm and clean: Turmeric-yellow walls are lit by wall-mounted halogen lights spotlighting black-and-white photos of Vietnam. The floors are maple, the tablecloths white, the menu hefty and professionally designed.

It's the perfect place for grad students to take special dates. In fact, we saw a few timid couples staring wetly at one another over their bowls of soup. The average entrée costs $8, and you have to eat a lot of food to spend $20 a person (once Unicorn obtains its beer and wine license, the tariff is bound to rise).

The friendliness of the waitstaff makes the prices doubly inviting. The first night we were served by the owner, muscle-bound and nattily dressed, who covered the half-full restaurant by himself but managed to time our courses like clockwork and stop to talk with us at the end. By the second night he had hired a second waiter. She was new enough to fine dining service that she couldn't stop remarking on how much food we had ordered. But she cleverly paced out the appetizers and entrées so that our tiny table never got overloaded by dishes. Three courses turned into six or seven.

Both meals started off on a forgettable note. Chao Zhou rolls -- short, thick rice-paper cylinders stuffed with a mushy, indistinct mix of crab, chicken, and jicama, didn't gain much from their sugary chile-garlic dipping sauce. The crispy imperial rolls, oilless but ordinary, contained chicken, mushrooms, and cellophane noodles and came with a mild-mannered nuoc cham (a normally addictive sweet-sour Vietnamese dipping sauce made with fish sauce).

Yet on both nights our spirits improved with the arrival of salad. On one night, blanched shrimp and crunchy lotus "rootlets" covered a mix of shredded cabbage, scallions, julienned carrots, and cilantro. A dose of chile sauce gave the same nuoc cham dressing a little kick. On another, juices from just-sautéed chicken strips mingled with the mild vinaigrette coating a watercress salad, the greens' peppery crunch a perfect foil for the meat.

A hit on both visits -- I couldn't dissuade my second-visit companions from ordering a batch -- were the salt-and-pepper calamari. Scored strips of baby squid were floured lightly, salted and peppered, and deep fried. The strips rolled up into nubbly coils, crisp-crusted and meaty but not tough. A simple dip of lemon juice, salt, and black pepper set off the squid's sweet flesh.

For the second -- or third, or fourth course, depending on how one determines these things -- we opted for the vermicelli platter with pork kabobs. Lettuce leaves, mint stalks, cucumber slices, julienned carrot, thin cakes of tangled vermicelli noodles strewn with peanuts, and bean sprouts were laid out on a platter with two grilled pork kabobs. The waiter set a stack of dried rice paper rounds and a bowl of hot water to the side. To eat the dish, one dips a piece of rice paper into the water, and while it softens on the plate, one puts little bits of everything on the center and then wraps it all in the now-sticky paper. The DIY spring roll barely contains the conflagration of flavors and textures within -- cool plays against hot, meaty against vegetal, chewy against crisp, all brought together by a dip into a bowl of nuoc cham.

On my next visit, we took a gamble and ordered the Vietnamese sea bass, which turned out to have been given the same treatment. Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of sea bass. For those of you who don't know, Chilean sea bass (the new market-friendly moniker for the more appropriately named Patagonian toothfish) has become so hot in the past ten years that the species is now perilously overfished. Hundreds of the best-known chefs in the United States have pledged to not serve it. However, it's such a gorgeous fish -- snow white, densely flaky, with little taste of the ocean -- that it continues to be popular. This was the first I've tasted it since learning about the boycott two years ago, and it complemented perfectly the light, clean flavors of the mint, cucumber, pickled carrots, and peanuts, again brought together with the sweet-tart nuoc cham. However, there are other fish in the sea -- the chef should choose one of them.

I've had better versions of most of the rest of the entrées in Oakland's Chinatown or on International Boulevard for much the same prices. But few were served in such pleasant surroundings. And according to Truong, he and his mother have replaced MSG with fresh herbs to bring the food more in accord with Californian tastes.

The closer to Vietnam we stayed, the better. The best of the main dishes was another Chao Zhou specialty, hot pot of prawns in a crabmeat curry. Nuoc cham in the sauce pulled out all the sweet succulence of the shellfish. A spicy, concentrated Vietnamese curry of lemongrass, coriander, and other aromatics, accented by sharp onions and peppers, set off the mild taste of chicken.

Many of the sautéed dishes are ordered by sauce, with one's choice of meat or tofu (vegetarians will find a large selection here). The chef reined in the fierce tartness of the tamarind sauce coating strips of battered chicken, leaving it sweet and overly docile. One bite was enough for the orange zest sauce with beef. Though the meat was fabric-thin and tender, orange peel dominated the sauce like an overzealous church matron, fustily perfumed and bitter.

"Pan-Asian" has such a sexy ring, but at heart Unicorn is a solid Vietnamese restaurant with an attractive décor and great service. Look beyond the restaurant's artificial culinary fusion to the more organic melding of cultures and flavors in the Truongs' native Chao Zhou cuisine.

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