One of the great joys of foreign travel is the immersion in a different culture. And at the center of that experience is the wondrous opportunity to compare and contrast the great cuisines of the world. What’s fantastic about the Bay area’s restaurant scene is that we’ve got the whole world in our hands. We needn’t travel halfway around the globe to broaden our taste horizons.
As I’ve established in previous columns, I’ve spent a lot of time and money on gastro-tourism. These sojourns, however, have mostly had a Western, rather than Eastern, bent. So when asked to report on the great cuisines of Asia, I usually bring along natives from those cultures to teach me about authenticity and to “translate” my passion for surprise and balance. These two elements usually define great cooking regardless of culinary heritage. But having dining companions immersed in a cuisine from a young age keeps you honest.
This week, however, I decide to take a culinary trek to Southeast Asia, but without my Asian safety net. Jade Bistro is the perfect restaurant for this journey. I heard about it from both Asian friends and non-Asian foodies, so I am curious to see what it is all about. As is true at many Asian restaurants, the portions are huge and the prices are most reasonable. It’s a showcase for dozens and dozens of Vietnamese specialties with a little Thai and Chinese thrown in, but eminently accessible to Western palates.
Apart from delicious food, which I’ll get to in a minute, the service is the most solicitous in town. Our obviously Asian server gently guided her obviously non-Asian patrons around the huge menu. I do some web research to see what dishes light up the taste buds of the foodie community online, but I can’t emphasize enough just how comforting and informative the service is. Plus, we get a glimpse of all the dishes coming out of the kitchen, with a quick summary, even as the evening progresses. Even so, the bowls of steaming pho that pass by on their way to other diners are enormous. In Victorian times, these vessels of pho would’ve been large enough to bathe an infant. Watching with a keen eye is like a primer in Asian gastronomy, so snag a booth by the kitchen if you’re so inclined.
The appetizers cover all the bases from egg rolls to spring rolls to wraps and dumplings. We begin with wonton soup (súp hoành thánh) as a familiar touchstone. The broth has depth, the wontons are firm and full of flavor, and the scallion and julienned pork garnish lends texture and dimension. So far, so good.
The autumn rolls (cha yio re) have a lot of online buzz and it’s well deserved. The thin crunchy roll is filled with shrimp, pork, vermicelli, taro, and carrots and fried till golden brown. You then wrap the roll in a leaf of crispy romaine and flavor to taste with a choice of herb leaves including mint, and a sweet anise-tinged basil. The final layer is a drizzle of spicy lime fish sauce. You tailor this to your own palate, but whatever your taste preferences, it’s a memorable combination of textures, aromas and flavors.
Our final starter is a Vietnamese crepe (bánh xèo). We skip meat and seafood and opt to go vegetarian. The crepe itself is a pan-fried rice flour creation flavored with coconut milk that resembles a huge folded omelette. It’s packed with onions and bean sprouts and offered with the same romaine lettuce and Asian herbs to personalize each bite and earn raves from the entire table.
The entrée options are equally varied; there are salads, noodles, rice vermicelli, stir-fries, and a multitude of fried rice options. Not to mention intriguing preparations of red meat, poultry and a wide variety of seafood, including several kinds of whole fish.
The traditional Vietnamese clay pot (com noi dat) is available filled with every imaginable protein option including tofu. The pot guarantees tenderness as it retains moisture and all the good nutrients and vitamins. Our tasty chicken version is juicy and surrounded by carrots, broccoli, bok choy, pea pods, and steamed rice.
Another dish that has a vocal following is the shaking beef (bò lúc lác). Cubes of steak the size of Vegas dice are pan seared with garlic and butter, then served atop a bed of iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions with a light vinaigrette. The beef is extremely tasty but I don’t quite get the allure of the traditional iceberg and pallid tomatoes — especially when juicy, ripe bright red varieties are in season.
The dish of the night is a delightful tamarind shrimp with avocado salad (tôm xào me voi xá lách bo).
Beautiful layers of sweet-sour shrimp are balanced by cool cucumber and avocado with the crunch of crispy shallots and peanuts. We’re so used to chunks of cucumber and avocado in cold salads that their presence in a hot dish lends a welcome and scrumptious element of surprise. Jade Bistro’s service is so welcoming, and the food is so fresh and lovingly presented, that now that I’ve been, I can’t wait to go back.
NEXT WEEK: Bernini of Ybor