Saigon Sex Appeal 

Xyclo's location and design promise more, perhaps, than its cuisine is set to deliver.

You say the name like this, see-clo. It's what you call the pedal rickshaws that jam the streets of Vietnamese cities like noodle stalls. Morphing "cyclo" into Xyclo injected this contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland with a slug of juicy attitude, says Keng Lieou, the restaurant's manager. Xyclo skims over tradition like a rickshaw, but with the kind of edgy young flow that a big, spiky X can conjure.

The restaurant gets the semiotics right, even if the kitchen hasn't quite nailed the shaking beef. Xyclo exudes the scent of sexy on this stretch of Piedmont Avenue between Dopo and César, and diners packing the room on a recent Friday night seemed stoked to catch a whiff.

The room makes a statement far stronger than the food. You get the feeling the owners squeezed a lot of style out of a middling budget. Cedar slats climb horizontally up a long wall and seep onto the ceiling. Squat, shallow niches display astonishing pieces of Southeast Asian driftwood, stretched and twisted like wrung-out bedsheets. The room has a funny L shape, and the designers, a new Emeryville firm called Three Buddhas, packed a lounge into its short arm. It's a slot as red as a vodka-cranberry, with blocky West Elm silhouettes — comfy, and there's plenty to look at if you have to endure a lagging wait, sampling some of the two dozen sake and soju cocktails.

At least one of Xyclo's owners has business experience in the rich feeding ground of Piedmont and the North Oakland hills. Loan Dinh's Montclair Village salon has been plugging away for fifteen years. Xyclo is a family project: Dinh and three of her four daughters (Jinh, manager Keng, and chef Vy Lieou) run the place in a way that exudes mom-and-pop despite the sleek trappings. It's exactly the right formula for Piedmont Avenue. If only the food sparkled as much as the vibe.

That shaking beef I mentioned, the traditional Vietnamese dish of stir-fried beef that's often served with onion and tomato. The menu calls it Tumbling Dice, which is cool, but what arrives is more clunky than clever. Nice that the kitchen uses beef fillet, and it explains the steep price. But it needn't have bothered, since the fillet was ruined by too much time in the wok. The cubes were stiff, with no trace of pink at the center, and had a flat, one-dimensional flavor.

If technique stilled the Tumbling Dice, it was concept that kept something called Seven Elements from adding up. Like the Thai dish meang kum, it's a kind of do-it-yourself salad wrap, a plate studded with piles of stuff you twist up into lettuce leaves: toasted coconut and tiny dried shrimp, lime pieces and fresh chiles, nuggets of ginger. But nothing came together, and the dried shrimp in particular were way too prominent, as charmless as a burrito with an unsliced chicken breast wrapped up inside.

Vietnamese cooking should be all about aroma, playful juxtapositions, and surprising textures. Those things describe bun cha Hanoi, a deconstructed version of traditional rice noodle salad. It's a dish that works because of the mixed meats at its center, a warm bowl of thin-sliced pork, shrimp, and sausage in a tasty, tamarind-laced broth. But lemongrass chicken curry falls flat: The braised leg-and-thigh joint seems lackluster in a pale, bland sauce.

What's frustrating about some of the dishes here is that with just a few adjustments they'd probably be wonderful — and the kitchen clearly is capable of such tweaks. Consider its sugarcane shrimp rolls: They were fantastic, with rice-paper wraps at the right degree of stretchy and tender. The shrimp, a tightly bound paste wrapped around cane skewers (removed before wrapping), picked up a subtle sweetness on the grill. Mint leaves and bits of apple julienne made the rolls sparkle.

But the sparkle didn't stretch as far as the Xyclo chile ribs, which on one visit seemed to show up at every table. These big pork ribs, about six inches long — not the tender-grained, so-called baby ones — converged like an asterisk under a frizzy orange clot of carrot shreds. The ribs were firm and sticky, like candied apples, with sesame seeds affixed to a dark, red-brown glaze. The flesh clung so stubbornly to the bones that we had to gnaw at it, getting our fingers and noses all sticky as we went. At the table next to us one night, an older guy in a cardigan and putty-colored shoes was trying to slice off shards of the gray meat with a steak knife. He looked increasingly helpless.

He would have done better with the Vietnamese carpaccio. It's pretty; slices of mulberry-colored top sirloin overlapped on a wide glass platter. Call it one of the restaurant's most self-consciously fusion dishes, squirted with lime juice and nuoc mam (fish sauce), scattered with crispy fried shallots, chopped cashews, and capers.

The flavors were tangy and bracing, but the texture earthbound, too thick for classic carpaccio. The slices bunched up under chopstick pressure into strips that seemed almost gummy. Carpaccio works when it's thin as baking parchment — you should get the sensation of beef flavor, a fleeting taste of blood and iron, without the feeling of actually chewing through raw flesh.

This is Vy Lieou's first gig as executive chef, and her inexperience is as clear as some of the floor staff's jitters. With a cooking-school degree and a stint on the line in only one restaurant (San Francisco's Postrio) it can't be easy building a sizable menu from the ground up, especially in such a high-profile spot. Xyclo's menu already has changed since it launched in late June, and Keng Lieou says her sister will keep making adjustments.

The chef's fresh apple salad gives you an idea of the challenge. It's a collapsed haystack of julienne Fujis and Granny Smiths mixed up with red grapes, chewy raisins, and bits of toasted peanut. It's nice and refreshing, and there would really be no reason to expect anything more if this were some ordinary neighborhood place. But a restaurant that exudes such a powerful aura of Next New Thing can't help but pitch some steep expectations.


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