Fusion cuisine is an innovative mash-up of different cuisines — and Vietnamese food is one of the best starting points. Sprinkled with non-native recipes and ingredients through the country’s history of would-be conquering foreigners, Vietnamese cuisine is a bit fusion-like already. In the hands of owner/executive chef Thuy Pham of Mountain View’s sizzling Xanh restaurant and lounge, this take on Vietnamese fusion is deliciously liberated and as seductive as watching the sunset from Phu Quoc Beach.
Xanh — it’s pronounced kind of like “sun” and means “blue,” “green” or “fresh” — is also the hippest spot on the city’s restaurant row. It’s sleekly contemporary, with a waterfall wall, reflective pendant globes, low leather booths and the soft glow of blue and purple lighting helping amp up the buzz to nightclub levels. Even amidst a troubled economy, Xanh still draws a crowd. Some come for the lounge scene and trendy cocktails, but most stop by for the food.
Like another popular Vietnamese fusion spot in the South Bay, Palo Alto’s Tamarine, Xanh is an all-female family affair. Pham runs the restaurant with her two daughters. She learned traditional cooking from her grandmother as a girl in Da Nang, then polished her Western sensibilities at culinary school in San Francisco. The jazzy plating and consistently modern twist to the large menu demonstrate how much Pham has learned in her new country.
Although the restaurant first opened in early 2006, Xanh really ignited after moving to bigger, plusher digs across the street awhile later. Result: Sexier decor and a larger menu, drawing more customers. Between the rice paper rolls, small plates, salads, soups, sides, noodles, entrees and Western-leaning desserts, the menu is stuffed with mouth-pleasing options.
Sharing is a wise strategy at Xanh. For example, the rolls are sliced into several pieces and served prettily with dipping sauces such as a sweet/savory nuoc cham vinaigrette. Rolls range from “traditional” — shrimp, rice noodles, veggies and herbs with crispy shallots — to more exotic choices like Kobe beef and spicy ahi tuna, with the latter featuring mango, herbs, greens, black pepper and a zingy sauce. A good choice is the “rolling duck” roll, which stars Peking-style duck, or the “misfit roll,” wrapping up crunchy soft-shell crab.
Presented in a towering hillock is the papaya salad, a traditional recipe with less zip than it should have that teams up green papaya, shrimp, mango and herbs. The grapefruit salad is a better choice, with the tart/sweet fruit, shrimp, fruit and zesty dressing piled into a scooped-out grapefruit.
Do peruse the small plates — consider them more sharable starters or petite meals for tiny eaters. Highlights are a trio of shellfish offerings that include “crab martini,” claw meat tossed with mango, sour apple, avocado and herbs; “crispy shrimp clouds,” heavenly little mouthfuls of shrimp, tart apples and herbs on rice “muffins” so light they almost float; and “full moon wraps,” tasty packages of airy crepes with shrimp, herbs and vegetables topping soft lettuce leaves.
Also beckoning are quite a few noodle dishes and sides. The best noodle choice is Bun Thit Nuong, perked up from the classic version and beautifully blending salty, tart, crispy and savory elements. Decidedly Westernized among sides are garlic noodles, with Parmesan cheese tossed into the garlicky melange. But don’t pass up the eggplant, broiled and mixed with ground chicken, peanuts and scallions.
If you’ve been sharing like you should, you might have room for entrees. There are 16 options and worth calling out are pineapple short ribs and “ankle biters,” an irresistible prawn dish. The beef ribs are Korean style, gorgeous and topped with a crunchy slaw of sprouts and bell peppers. Meanwhile, the prawns are cooked in their shells in a salty, spicy mixture that requires finger utensils and lots of happy licking.
Leaning in a Western direction is grilled rack of lamb, served with a shiraz-veal reduction and Easternized with Chinese five spice and Asian greens. More traditional is shaking beef, succulently tender filet cubes with garlicky sauce on greens. Somewhere between East and West is “Duck Duck Good,” pairing rare roasted slices of duck breast with sticky-rice pork polenta, mango, cucumber and a sweetish tamarind sauce. One of the signature dishes — banana leaf sea bass — is somewhat inconsistent. It can be juice and tender or just soft and mushy, but the presentation is gorgeous and the shitake mushrooms, ginger and onions a nice complement.
Soldiering on to dessert, you’ll be most tempted by the chocolate box, proudly non-Asian and featuring light and dark chocolate mousses around a cherry ganache center all wrapped in dark chocolate. Another layered treat is “split-personality sorbet,” which wraps white chocolate around mango and passionfruit sorbets. Less enticing is “Manage (sic) a Trois,” a reworking of a traditional dish in which the elements are separated and presented as gummy tapioca pearls, tough, sweet mung beans and iced coconut. The idea is to mix them together but this dish looks better than it tastes.
The friendly, black-clad servers with their “Xanh” belt buckles glide by with varying levels of efficiency, but glitches will usually be addressed in the bill. The restaurant is a busy place with multiple rooms and outdoor tables, which adds to the serving challenges. Nevertheless, the glitzy decor and enticing menu overwhelm any downsides. The South Bay has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the nation, so it’s high time residents sampled Xanh’s delectable, user-friendly version of this exciting cuisine.
Xanh Restaurant & Lounge, 110 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 964-1888, http://www.xanhrestaurant.com
HOURS: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30-2; dinner, Monday-Friday, 4:30 to close; Saturday-Sunday, 5 to close. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Starters (rolls, salads, soups), $6-12; small plates, $9-14; entrees, $14-27; desserts, $9.