Things sprout, twirl, and fan out of Vanessa Dang's spicy salmon tartare at La Rose Bistro. It's a pastel Kandinsky of a dish, bright and playful. But what really catches my attention is how good it tastes: I greedily scoop chunks of salmon and avocado -- butter on butter -- swaddled in a ginger-spiked sesame vinaigrette onto ephemerally crisp shrimp chips.
I've sounded off enough in this column about dumb fusion -- the "Let's toss in some ginger (or soy, or wasabi) and call it Asian!" approach to melding cuisines. When I was eating my way around Beijing in November, I discovered that dumb fusion wasn't just a Western flub, either. The Chinese just do it with goat cheese.
But the heyday of dumb fusion seems to have passed. The cooks responsible for the worst of it have moved on or grown up. In the last few years, restaurants such as Dragonfly and Marica have been taking Asian fusion beyond faddishness. La Rose now ranks with the best of these places. The French, Californian, and Southeast Asian influences come together so organically that you can't tell exactly where the West leaves off and the East begins.
It's the hallmark of a highly seasoned chef. Dang has worked in the restaurant business for almost 25 years, ever since she immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. She rose from prep cook to head chef of Le Cheval, where she stayed at the helm for thirteen years. After stints working for La Folie and Aqua, Dang ended up as chef de cuisine at Bridges for five years. Then she decided to go it on her own. "When you know too much it's hard to work for other people," she jokes.
If you've ever tried to open your own restaurant -- or watched Rocco DiSpirito's shenanigans on The Restaurant -- you'll appreciate the fact that Dang moved into the building that formerly housed Crepe de Vine, completely renovated it, and got all her permits and inspections done in five weeks, surely a Berkeley record. The disintegrating interior was patched, recarpeted, and painted sage green, with rose-themed murals on the walls and colorful red and gold lamps hanging from above.
The food is even prettier. Almost every plate looks like food porn. Baby carrots morph into skinny-petaled flowers, and herb sprigs and fried-noodle whips shoot off the plate. Tangles of sprouts and clouds of finely spun beet and carrot threads crown even the heartiest of dishes.
Dang's nuanced cuisine-hopping often focuses on seafood. Light, crunchy crab cakes spiked with scallions and herbs -- the midpoint between Thai fish fritters and cream-bound Chesapeake Bay crab cakes -- sat lightly atop a mixed-green salad with a subtle pineapple vinaigrette. Her calamari was dipped in a thin rice-flour batter and deep-fried just until the edges firmed into little crispy clouds; the almost-undercooked squid maintained the silky texture of hamachi sashimi. And in a signature entrée brought over from Bridges, Dang sautéed scallops and tiger shrimp with mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and greens in a Thai coconut-basil curry sauce. Without being syrupy, the fragrant sauce, all anise and mint and coriander, brought out the incredible sweetness of the tender prawns.
But her touch with straight-up French-Californian fare is equally sure. In a "sweet carrot" soup with Parmesan, Dang played down the carrots' sweetness in the thick orange puree, bringing out their earthy, rooty character, which the aged cheese melting into the soup heightened beautifully. A thick New York strip, textbook medium-rare, was complemented not just by a glistening slab of truffle-thyme butter but also the delicately sweet-tart meatiness of a merlot reduction sauce.
Only two dishes slipped. Chicken brochettes (kebabs), coated in a Vietnamese-style lemongrass marinade with just enough sugar to caramelize on the grill, stayed pinkly moist inside. However, the sweet-potato gnocchi rolled around the plate like leaden little curds. And a gummy green-pea risotto with royal mushrooms and bell peppers didn't absorb much flavor from the vegetable stock it was cooked in. The dish needed something to give it life -- probably the fennel sauce listed on the menu, which didn't appear on the plate. However, you could have told me the pan-roasted mushroom splayed across the risotto was a duck breast and it would have taken me more than a few bites to figure out you were lying.
But with the desserts, usually a stumbling point for a tiny kitchen, Dang pulls off intriguing twists on simple bistro standards. Our bananas Foster didn't appear wreathed in blue flames -- no flambéed rum in this one -- but we, like the scoops of ice cream on top, melted as soon as we encountered the sautéed bananas and macadamia nuts swaddled in homemade caramel sauce at the bottom of the bowl. And Dang stripped the crème brûlée of cliché by imbuing the custard with toasty, sulfury molasses and fragrant ginger, playing up the caramel flavor of the burnt-sugar pane on top.
Two other things to mention: Three-quarters of the food is organic, much of it coming from local farmers' markets. And Dang offers a $20 three-course prix fixe lunch for those days when a sandwich just isn't enough. The only aspect of the restaurant that shows La Rose's opened-on-a-shoestring origins is the wine list, lined with bottom-shelf vintages with a significant markup. Investing in an expensive or large wine list takes some serious capital up front, and I hope that as business grows Dang will divert some of her profits into improving the quality and selection of the wines. Thankfully, she lavishes a little more attention on the whites than the reds, since Pinot Grigios, Gewürztraminers, and lightly oaked Chardonnays make natural accompaniments to Southeast Asian flavors.
After the food, the second best thing about La Rose is Chef Dang herself. She takes her new role as proprietor seriously, befriending patrons with charm and gratis treats. When the restaurant starts to get busier, as I'm sure it will, you may not see Dang quite so much, but on both my visits she circulated through the room in her down time, clad in chic togs instead of dingy chef's whites. In fact, my friend Denise returned breathless from a trip to the bathroom, whispering, "She's at the stove wearing her cashmere sweater!" Cooking in cashmere and emerging from the kitchen without a single splash mark -- baby, that's style.