Kliman Online: November 7, 2006

Eden Center, Huong Que, Huong Viet, Viet Royale, Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar

By: Todd Kliman

Returning to Eden ...

Westerners who pass through the lion-headed gate at the Eden Center, aka Little Vietnam, continue to keep the folks at Huong Que, aka Four Sisters, busy. Huong Que has its charms, most notably the sisters themselves, who take their time in explaining the menu and the dishes and who are full of good cheer no matter how crowded the bright and welcoming dining room can get. The food, though, lacks the punch of two of its neighbors, as I was reminded yet again these last couple of weeks in separate visits to that sprawling, food-mad plaza.

Huong Viet, narrow and happily chaotic, spilling over with families, was as good as I'd remembered it. I particularly loved a dish of shrimp in caramel sauce. Forget the sticky, almost sickly sweet goo that most caramel sauces end up as; this one was neatly balanced, shot through with enough lemongrass, ginger and chili to leaven the sweetness. A special of salty fried pork brought a mound of bone-in hunks of pork coated in a mouth-tingling mixture of ground star anise and salt. Crispy spring rolls had an almost spongy lightness on the inside, no small feat when the stuffing is made up almost entirely of ground pork.

One of the best things about Viet Royale is that you can roam across the sprawling menu without fear. In my experience, there are few clunkers to be turned up. And some dishes are so good, you'll be thinking of them for days later. Like the underdone beef, listed as an appetizer but big enough to constitute an entree. Here, layers of thin, shaved lightly cooked beef are interleaved with basil leaves and red onion and topped off with slivers of fried garlic; there's a fish sauce for dunking the meat, and a few lime wedges for spritzing it, too. Prawns in coconut juice is one of those rare dishes that's every bit as exciting as the exotic-sounding name promises; the coconut juice has been reduced down to a syrup, so that it resembles a caramel sauce. I would have been content just to scoop it up onto my rice, to eat meatless; but the prawns were terrific, plump, heads-on critters full of juice and pop. Curries are a strong suit. A yellow curry was fragrant and full-bodied, with hacked-up slices of duck bobbing up from the brilliant, turmeric-colored broth, along with a few gorgeous green cilantro leaves. The skin of the duck was soft, not crispy -- a minor quibble. Crunch came in the form of a crusty Vietnamese sub roll, perfect for dipping up the lush yellow broth.


Go Fish ...

A lot of chefs disdain fish, finding it a poor cousin to meat, which affords them greater opportunities for extracting and intensifying flavors. As a result, too often they force a fish into playing the role of meat – or, alternatively, go the dull, minimalist route in surrounding a piece of fish with a wan ensemble of vegetable and starch.

Barry Koslow, the new chef at Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, does neither. And nowhere so well as with a dish of black sea bass, the thick, white filet pooled in a briny, fragrant broth of mussel juice and saffron and graced by tiny coins of fiery chorizo and braised fennel. It's that rare plate of fish in which all the various components of the dish are harmonized into a single, compelling statement, and you realize that delicacy and lusciousness shouldn’t be mutually exclusive values.

A filet of yellowtail with long beans, slices of taro root and a cap of grated ginger might not reach those heights, but the accoutrements are so smartly handled, so well-harmonized, that you never feel as though the French-trained Koslow is dabbling in Orientalism.

Halibut is among the more difficult fishes for a chef to work with, the virtues of its white, meaty flakiness offset by its lack of flavor. It’s a measure of Koslow’s skill that he almost succeeds in reviving this over-employed fish – and despite cooking it just past the point of soft lusciousness on the night I ordered it. The plate was awash with painterly color, a garland of juicy orange segments, sweet roasted beets and braised kohlrabi encircling a plump square of roasted fish.

Koslow even knows when to break his own rules. Tuna carpaccio is the kind of item you have to have on a menu to please the beautiful young things who gather at the bar to sip and graze. But the quality of tuna has declined so much over the last few years, that in all but the most expensive restaurants, it’s hardly worth ordering – beautiful to look at, mealy to chew. Koslow grasps that fact, transforming what used to be a showpiece appetizer for many chefs into a seaweed salad, the thin, yuzu-slicked bands of tuna there mostly to provide a textural change of pace.