by Hugh Donagher, III
Xanh has been a success story from the day the doors opened at their current location two years ago. The name is pronounced almost like the English word sun and depending on context or intonation can mean green, blue or fresh in Vietnamese.
The restaurant is truly a family affair, with sisters Amanda and Jade working the front of the house. The father helps and “tries to stay out of trouble.” The mother is the chef and runs the kitchen. A graduate of the Culinary Institute in San Francisco, she grew up in Da Nang province, where she would go to the local markets with her grandmother. They would shop for the family’s needs and sample the dishes offered by the various street vendors. Upon returning home, the grandmother would challenge her to make the dishes she had just tried, from memory.
The cuisine is Vietnamese “fusion.” Their mission is “to fuse the culinary traditions of Vietnamwith modern aesthetics and complexities.” An example of this fusion is the spring-rolls that blend traditional Vietnamese with creative influences from other cuisines. My favorite is the spicy tuna roll — spicy ahi tuna with sliced mango, fresh lettuce, cilantro, mint, and crispy shallots, served with spicy vinaigrette. The crispy shrimp roll has Monterey Bay prawns, white and green onions, fresh lettuce, and mint and served with nuoc cham vinaigrette. The roll is very good, and the deuce roll combines two rolls in one: at the center is the crispy shrimp roll, which is surrounded by pork tenders, lettuce, mint, chives and carrots and wrapped again. There are half a dozen other rolls.
The menu is designed for sharing, which we are told is a fundamental cultural element. The idea is to pick one or two things from a few different categories– rolls, soups, greens, noodles, small plates, main plates and sides–and share it all.
While this is a favorite date restaurant for my partner Brian and I, the larger the group, the more things you can try! We went there for Brian’s birthday this year with a group of eight, gave Jade a budget and told her “Don’t bring menus, just bring food.” Our guests were still talking about the meal a week later. We now know how the kings and queens of antiquity felt during those banquets we read about in fairy tales, where plates of food keep dancing out from the kitchen.
The grapefruit salad is amazing. Served in a hollowed out grapefruit (or pommelo, depending on season) rind is the fruit with poached shrimp, slivers of green apple, pineapple, red peppers, mint, shallots and black pepper. There is a papaya salad, a banana flower salad, a fresh apple salad and the Xanh salad, which has beef, greens, red and yellow peppers, mango, apple, avocado and pineapples served over great big Vietnamese rice crackers with a special dressing.
Favorites from the other categories of plates:
Fried calamari: coated in a mildly spicy batter and served up in a bowl with fried onions and jalapeño slices, the dipping sauce is amazing.
Shaking beef: cubes of marinated filet mignon, served over a bed of mixed greens and sliced cherry tomatoes.
Catfish in a clay pot: served in a covered clay pot, the catfish is caramelized and served with cilantro, ginger and thai chiles.
Baby pork ribs: fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.
And my partner swears he could live on for the rest of his life, garlic noodles, with or without huge garlic-seasoned grilled prawns. Served with grated parmesan on the side and the most delicious fried garlic flakes garnishing the top of the pile of noodles.
We have had every single item on the menu in the course of our regular visits, and have yet to be disappointed. The full menu is online at http://www.xanhrestaurant.com .
Lest we forget dessert, the chef was trained as a pastry chef. So don’t skip dessert here — especially, the “Split Personality” which is big enough to split between four, let alone two, and is a delightful mix of raspberry and mango sorbets dipped in white chocolate. Also on the dessert menu are the chocolate box (a cube of chocolate cake and mousse, I think, covered in chocolate), a chocolate mousse and some ice creams. All made on site.
Enjoy. Tell them Hugh & Brian sent you. Let us know what you think below!
[Editor’s Note: Updated from a 2007 review.]