Yesterday was R. and my 34th anniversary. I had to work, so though he stayed home to be sure Jeremy was taken care of, taking him sushi for lunch, and checking in on him at the apartment, he was mostly on his own. When I returned from work, there was a beautiful bouquet of apricot rosebuds on the table, and R. was getting ready for us to go out to eat at a restaurant in Fountain Valley I have been requesting for a year, since we were last there with Anne Gray and her yoga buddies. In the spare room, what Lou calls the cats' room, there was a big box--a book shelf for those books that are still piled up on the floor in the living room, and R. promises to put it together so I can get them up off the floor and neatly into their place.
Then we started for the restaurant. It was about 5:15, and I thought taking the freeway might be a risk. But R. claimed it wouldn't be a problem, so off we went. The freeway was packed with cars all the way, so that it took us about 15 minutes to get 1/2 mile. We were both starving by the time we got to the restaurant. I recognized the shopping center because of the Albertsons and the Vietnamese movie theater smack in the middle of it.
Xanh Bistro is a lovely, tranquil little place, whose green lettering on the sign suggests the meaning of the name, which apparently means green in Vietnamese, or so I'm told. It is run and owned by a local chef who also gives cooking lessons (and you can bet I'm going to check those out). She cooks traditional Vietnamese with a twist, so that although one can definitely recognize the foods, they have something special about them--an herb, a sauce--that is all her own.
As R. says, when he eats there, it isn't like anywhere else. The combination of items in the dishes, described meticulously in the menu, can seem a bit off-putting to the diner who is not particularly adventurous. For example, the soup we had (after first ordering the mustard green soup with chicken dumplings, which was not available) was a tomato-based hot and sour soup with pineapple--not canned pineapple, but sweet, ripe chunks, along with unidentifiable thin green disks of taro and slivers of anise-flavored basil, and a mushroom I could not identify. The flavor was bright, sweet, and yes, a bit sour, though not spicy-hot, as the name suggested. We ate every bit.
The soup was preceded by my favorite crunchy Vietnamese eggrolls, thinly rolled cigar-shaped lozenges of ground chicken, vermicelli, carrots, and daikon in a lovely fish-sauce mixture. We wrapped them in generous leaves of romaine lettuce, packing these with rau ram, shredded daikon, and carrot, and dipped the whole package in the sauce. Then the amazing main dish...
We decided on a fish, with another amazing sauce, pungent and dark, peanuts, and a bit of beautifully green dill. The fish was burnished gold in its small iron skillet, brought to the table with a protective woven bamboo base. We spooned ramen noodles into our bowls, then shredded romaine, peanuts, the fish, and the sauce, and the whole thing disappeared in no time. All of it tasted like nothing we had never had before. Each flavor stood out, and we knew we were in the hands of someone who definitely knew what she was doing.
The owner asked whether we wanted dessert, and initially, R. said no, but I wanted to try a dessert, since what we had thus far was so outstanding. So we ordered a coconut creme brulee to share. I have had creme brulee before, and always found it disappointing, but this dessert, with its thin golden shell on the top, was the essence of the tropics, never cloyingly sweet, creamy and firm, without resembling a block of styrofoam, something I had experienced before. It was served with long, green spoons, two of them, so we could share. We savored every bite.
Then we returned home, toasted with sparkling wine, and watched the Coen brothers' movie A Serious Man, which I find so endlessly fascinating and intriguing.
Xanh Bistro is at 16161 Brookhurst, Fountain Valley, across from Mile Square Park. You will find a menu online, at http://www.xanhbistro.com/