Best Contemporary Viet Fusion: Breathing new life into traditional dishes

Vanessa's Bistro

Late 2006 saw contemporary Vietnamese bistros flower almost as thick as quince blossoms, but none of them matches Vanessa’s Bistro for range and subtlety. The small North Berkeley restaurant is a vehicle for chef Vanessa Dang’s meticulously calibrated chops. A veteran of Le Cheval, Bridges, and La Rose Bistro, she sends a ripple of Cal-French sensibility through traditional Vietnamese dishes. The bright mosaic of vegetable elements in Dang’s Saigon-style sweet-and-sour prawns soup is dazzling, as is the lushness of its tamarind-spiked broth. Scattered with deep-fried shallots and a mince of numbing, anise-like rau ram leaves, the chef’s cellophane-thin filet mignon carpaccio shows that brilliant Asian fusion can be a matter of technique. With careful textures, even the most traditional dish can seem new and sparkly. And you’ve got to admire any restaurant whose chef — glimpsed in the semi-open kitchen — never fails to look chic in makeup and pearls.

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