Vanessa’s Bistro, sweet and savory the Vietnamese way

    “You girls know how to eat”, our hostess smiled at us, the check attached. Ten things. At a tapas place like Vanessa’s Bistro where everything sounds tasty, I’d say we did a pretty good job narrowing down our choices, and we asked for the house recommendations only three times. All rendered success.

    The first decision was the easiest: we’d got to get the sweet potato fries. Neither mushy like their orange cousins nor mealy like the white kinds, these Okinawan sweet potatoes, or purple yams, are sturdy in texture and just gently sweet. With or without the ginger aioli, they were loved. The small plates also stood alone splendidly, not that their dipping sauce came short.

    Black pepper cured filet carpaccio with roasted peanuts, fried shallots and Asian mint (húng quế). A twist on the classic Vietnamese bò nhúng dấm (carpaccio with vinegar) bò tái chanh (carpaccio with lime). (Thanks for the correction, Linh-Dang!)

    Crispy quail marinated in five spices and honey, with a light mixed fish sauce. Classic Vietnamese.

    Doesn’t look like much but it’s my favorite of the night: Maple Leaf duck confit lettuce wraps with mushroom, onion and roasted peanuts; a sweet, slightly zesty black bean sauce for dipping. The pickled radish and daikon carry a gentle fruity note, had our hostess not been so busy with the other tables I would have asked her what kind of vinegar they used to pickle.

    Green papaya salad with poached prawn, roasted peanuts and Asian mint. A hint of fish sauce. Pieces of sesame crackers, substituting for the traditional shrimp crackers or rice crackers.

    Pork loin marinated in molasses and slow roasted to a crusty outside, unfortunately a tad dry inside, topped with a lovely Fuji apple chutney and accompanied by an average potato gratin.

    Dungeness crab and mozzarella rolled in an oven-baked petrale sole filet, which was dressed in a lemon caper beurre blanc. The accompanied potato croquet is nothing to write home about, but we left no trace of the fish roll. It’s a Vanessa’s Special that doesn’t get served every night, we’re told.

    And desserts, of course. Fuji apple and coconut eggroll with vanilla ice cream. Good ol’ comfort.

    A ginger molasses creme brulee. Charming at first bite but quickly grew too rich.

    Banana, raisin and peach bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. Good ol’ comfort once again.

    It’s been a while since I’ve dug into Vietnamese food, mostly because I’m afraid of getting less than I expect. The same thing happens to my Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends with their respective cuisine: we compare the “authentic” stuff at the restos with what our mom makes or what we remember eating in our motherland, and we shrug. Now Vanessa’s Bistro didn’t disappoint. It doesn’t dwell on authenticity, then again, the nature of Vietnamese cuisine speaks mix-and-match. The restaurant looks Western but it smells Vietnamese. The plates and their names are dressed up in French but the core ingredients ring familiar tunes. Everything is sweet and savory. We intentionally ignored the more Vietnamese shaken beef (bò lúc lắc) and claypots to have room for innovations, and innovations we got, but it’s nice to see that the roots are still there. 🙂

    Address: Vanessa’s Bistro
    1715 Solano Ave
    Berkeley, 94707
    (510) 525-8300
    Dinner for three (ladies): $97.89

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    2 comments to Vanessa’s Bistro, sweet and savory the Vietnamese way

    • That’s a really nice moody photo. And interesting sounding restaurant. We’ll have to check it out some time or other.
      Question – I can’t tell how you actually ate the beef carpaccio, but just the plate makes me think more bò tái chanh (salad like) than bò nhúng dấm (hot pot, rolling.)
      Oh and purple sweet potato fries seems purposely designed to make me pig out. Definitely have to check out this restaurant!

    • Mai

      You’re right! It is more like bo tai chanh! Why didn’t I think of that?! Thanks, Dang! Correction is made right away.

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