Vietnamese Modernism 

At her new Solano digs, ex-Bridges chef Vanessa Dang makes fusion an art form.

One sip from the porcelain spoon and it was obvious. The Saigon-style sweet-and-sour prawns soup at Vanessa's Bistro conjured a tidepool landscape of the complex and sparkling, a sheen of tiny fat beads floating above a welter of polished ingredients. Celery slivers and fat, silky prawns. Tiny bean sprouts and clots of gently dissolving tomato. The tamarind-laced broth was a Jenga balance of sweet and sour, layered by a chef with a remarkably sensitive touch.

Vanessa Dang's skills in this regard are beyond sensitive. The former chef de cuisine at Bridges in Danville is precise and confident, and her dishes seem rigorously thought out even as they're easy-to-love delicious. Dang has the sensibilities of a born chef and the exquisite chops that comes from decades of experience.

Despite its name, Vanessa's Bistro isn't even Dang's, at least not officially. It belongs to Vi Nguyen, her 27-year-old daughter, who is both a server and front-of-the-house manager. It's easy to imagine Dang whistling a husky sigh of relief now that she no longer signs the checks. The chef is free to do what she loves: shopping personally for the restaurant's mostly organic produce and working the kitchen line in smart street clothes and elegantly pulled-back hair, a Dang signature.

She wasn't always this free. In 2003 Dang and a business partner launched La Rose Bistro in downtown Berkeley, a place that showed off her fusion prowess with slightly more vertical flair than the quietly lush dishes she's plating here. But disagreements with her partner took the bloom off La Rose, at least for Dang, and by April 2005 she'd sold her share. She found a new space on Solano Avenue almost immediately, a gently curving, open-to-the-sidewalk storefront where the Chinese restaurant Shin Shin had enjoyed a run of twenty years. It seemed perfect: a good space, longevity karma, and the promise of a loyal, cash-flush customer base.

But while Dang managed to open La Rose in five weeks, Vi Nguyen found herself in Berkeley permit-review limbo, which lasted sixteen months. Nguyen still sounds bitter about it. "In the end, so many people who saw our 'Coming Soon' sign kept asking us when we were going to open, I think it just happened," she says.

Whether by collective karmic will or the whim of some municipal bureaucrat, Nguyen and Dang have opened a beauty of a neighborhood bistro. The shallow, L-shaped room is half bar, half dining room, with a look that's both concrete-floor contemporary and Southeast Asian traditional. Some tables, especially two-tops, are jammed a bit close — the bamboo-clad bar is more comfortable. It's a good place to spread out, a removed perch where it's easy to focus your attention on the wonderful things coming out of the semi-open kitchen.

The menu promises "Vietnamese tapas with a French twist." That sets up an expectation of nibble-sized servings drenched in the demiglace-and-reduced-balsamic clichés of hackneyed fusion. But Dang's dishes are both more satisfying than tapas implies, and her sensibility is more original. It has the essential perfume, the vivid textural contrasts of straight-up Vietnamese, only on a miniaturist scale you recognize at once as contemporary. Call it Vietnamese modernist.

The ethereal filet mignon carpaccio shows what fusion can become in the hands of a talented chef. Instead of some clumsy, caper-and-Thai-basil-spiked mish-mash of East and West, Dang's version combined thoroughly Vietnamese tastes with carefully controlled textures. It looked delicately ragged on the plate, a membrane of fragile-looking filet slices the color of faded hibiscus blossoms. The meat's soft fibers seemed to melt against the warmth of our tongues, and there was a scattering of crunchy pieces on top, chopped toasted peanuts and bits of yeasty-tasting fried shallot. Mint provided a nicely grassy burr, as did minced leaves of rau ram, the Southeast Asian herb that's numbing, anise-like, and a little spicy.

Cubes of beef filet had the perfect deep-pink juiciness and open-fibered texture in Dang's take on shaking beef, called "shaking filet mignon salad in garlic brandy butter sauce." Good thing the dish wasn't quite as its name implied, but a warm jumble of beef cubes scattered over soft pieces of pale butter lettuce. Brandy and butter were so restrained they were easy to overlook, and for flavor the dish leaned heavily on caramelization from the sauté pan, turned sexy with whiffs of garlic and fish sauce. It didn't even need its accompanying dip, the ubiquitous Vietnamese concoction of lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

That same quality — a dish taking a contemporary route to a deliciously traditional end — suffused five-spices honey-marinated crispy quail. The splayed, lacquered minibird was anise-and-cinnamon spicy without giving up its delicately gamey taste. It was a lighter take on a classic dish. So was Vietnamese green papaya salad, a study in textures that contrasted stiff, fibrous wisps of carrot and papaya with plump, soft shrimp. The flavors were dark and restrained, with the heady trio of fried shallot, toasted peanuts, and fish sauce, tweaked with a slight hit of lime juice. Dungeness crab tartare was dark-tasting, too. The martini-glass cocktail of crab with avocado had a soy-and-sesame-oil dressing whose molasses-like gravity allowed the crab's natural sweetness to soar.

When Dang stumbled, it was only on particular elements of a dish. Miso-glazed Chilean sea bass was undercooked at the thick end, a quality I don't mind except with gelatinous fish like bass. It felt like underdone chicken. Its miso glaze was the rare piece of Dang's cooking that lacked subtlety or perfume, a loud blast of beery and salty. A shame, since the pad Thai noodles underneath the fish had the most amazing lemongrass aroma. And even though grilled lemongrass pork chops were tasty, they were jarringly homestyle. Nicely marinated and charred, the supple shoulder chops had an interior disc of muscle that ate like velvet, under an ineffably rich drizzle of roasted shallot oil. But sprawled over a steamed hand of bok choy, they had a scale and informality that felt more like staff dinner than anything else on Dang's elegant menu.

To say Dang's cooking is elegant doesn't mean that it can't also be gutsy. Sautéed prawns and scallops in coconut curry — a signature dish that has survived the move from Bridges to La Rose Bistro to this already friendly stretch of Solano — glows with a steady burn of heat. The earthy, aromatic sauce smolders with curry, not to mention sliced jalapeños mingling with fat shiitake caps and precisely cut celery pieces, tomatoes, and inherently sweet seafood. The food here has all the elegance of the well loved.


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