The best Chinese food I ever ate was in San Francisco, not Beijing or Shanghai. And the best Vietnamese food I ever ate was here, not Saigon.
Tonight, we had dinner with Mike and Gretchen at Vanessa’s Bistro 2 in Walnut Creek. The have a place in Berkeley as well, which is #1. It wasn’t the very best Vietnamese I’ve eaten, but it’s pretty darned good.
A few years ago, Vietnamese meant pho, the chicken broth soup that is the heart of the cuisine. Today, the best Vietnamese places are going gourmet, with nary a bowl of pho in sight.
Situated on North Main Street just north of Mount Diablo Blvd., Vanessa’s Bistro 2 is a long narrow storefront type of restaurant with a couple of tables on the sidewalk. I think there was another room in the back, but never got there to check it out.
Vanessa’s offers “tapas”, small plates designed to be shared, as well as traditional entreés. We decided to concentrate on the smaller plates so we could try more things.
I’m a huge fan of green papaya salad, which I always think is odd because I don’t like papaya. Which turns out to mean that I don’t like the regular, ripe papaya because it is too soft and texture-less for me, but the green papaya is very firm and crunchy and just delightful. This particular salad was extra crunchy, from a very very green papaya, and I liked it considerably.
The roasted beet salad sure is gorgeous. Too bad I don’t like beets. But Gretchen and Gail do, so the salad disappeared quickly even without my help.
Okay, this is a great looking dish but there’s really too much going on here. Grilled “filet” (in somebody’s dreams), noodles and salad is just more than one bowl needs. I’d like the “filet” with the noodles OR the salad, but both is just too much for me.
Poke (pronounced “pokey”) is really a Hawaiian dish of raw fish, onion, avocado and whatever good spices the local chef dreams up. In the islands you can buy it in Safeway. In Walnut Creek, you need to go to someplace cool like Vanessa’s.
I think these spring rolls, which are neither hot nor crispy, are an acquired taste for those of us who grew up on shopping center Chinese restaurants with deep fried rolls. Fortunately, I’ve acquired the taste, and these were particularly good. Prawns and vermicelli are combined and then dipped in, strangely enough, chipotle sauce. The Vietnamese use a lot of various chili peppers, so going for the chipotles isn’t really much of a stretch.
Besides the things I have photos of, we had the Duck confit lettuce wraps: duck cooked in duck fat with sliced onions and spices and then you wrap it in lettuce leaves at the table, add some spicy sauce and enjoy. Then there was the Five Spice Quail, which we thought was overcooked. The tiny quail have so little meat that it if you go for crispy skin the meat is incinerated, too.
Service was prompt if a bit impersonal. The restaurant loses the standard full star for not having a decent sweetener for my iced tea–Equal or Splenda are acceptable, Sweet-n-low is cheap for a reason–it sucks.
Overall, Vanessa’s is not bad. The food is perhaps a notch below Eleve, but decidedly better than any pho house you might try. I notice that they not only have an early happy hour from 3-6, but a late one, from 9-11. This could be a fun place to come for a late snack or after movie treat. If only they would get a better class of sweetener.