You could have been there. A month or so back, Victoria Libin posted a notice here about a dinner at a worthy Vietnamese restaurant that was in danger of shutting down for lack of business. How about we all get together on August 13th help them out? Oh, and by the way, this is being posted to another online board, on craigslist.
Now, it strikes me that the fortuitous combination of feeding one's face with excellent food, and being able to call it a good deed, is well nigh irresistible to Chowhounds. But there were two jokers in the deck. One was a statement that the food, one dish excepted, was "good, but not earth-shattering good." Hmmm what is Chowhounding but an endless search for "earth-shattering good," even in the unlikeliest of places? The other was the two-boards thing. Who were these people from this alien online land? I found out last night, when I walked into Lotus Garden and found that there were two other Chowhounds, counting Victoria herself, and an entire platoon of craigslisters (craigslistoids?).
It turned out fine. Apparently there's a sub-board on craigslist where the food-obsessed hang out, and it was from this self-selected group that my dinner companions came. Nice people, fun people, and sharp about food. Food. You knew I'd get around to mentioning it, right? What did we eat, and how was it?
One more piece of background, first. I cannot claim to be knowledgeable about Vietnamese food. In fact, other than a nagging Pho addiction, and some familiarity with, and even more affinity for, the cuisine in nearby Thailand, I'm pretty ignorant about it. So it's possible that I could taste the perfect version of a classic Vietnamese dish, and report that "well, it was all right." So, now that I've disqualified myself, here's my report:
Raw beef salad
This was a very successful dish. Very thin slices of raw beef, wonderfully overwhelmed by tons of basil, cilantro, crushed peanuts, tiny cucumber cubes, and a tangy lime-chili-fish sauce liquid. You scoop this up and put it on these things like those flat shrimp chips that puff way up when deep fried, except these are nicely bowl-shaped to hold things in. Delicious, and, except for the rawness, very much like Thai beef salad, and appealing for the same reason. One of the things I love in Thai cooking is when the main ingredient is small in volume compared to the mass of fresh seasoning. This is very much that kind of dish. VERY GOOD PLUS
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
None of these names are from the menu, which I never saw. I'm gathering them from other people, or from my own head. These were those cold spring rolls with the translucent wrapper, containing shrimp, a minty leaf, a bunch of noodles, probably rice but maybe bean thread, maybe some pork. There was a hoisin-based dipping sauce. This was fun to bite into, but a bit bland. I mean, it all worked, with the dipping sauce, in that things were complementary, but I could hardly taste the shrimp because too much of the bulk was those noodles. It was as though the very blandness of the roll required an extra-assertive dipping sauce, and the final result, while balanced and complete, felt a bit like eating air. GOOD
This one got a bit of advance discussion here. They're not wrapped dumplings, and they're presumably deep-fried, so no sticking to the pot is involved, but why be a stickler for terminology? What they are, is a meat mixture, rolled in (sweet?) rice, and deep-fried to a crunchy crispness. The kitchen delivered these in waves, which meant that you could pick up one of these about 45 seconds after it left the fryer. That's the way to handle fried stuff.
The prickly-crunchy outer texture was pretty much perfect, but the combination of flavorings in the filling didn't really work for me. The combination of the sweetness of the carrot, and the bitterness of what may be fresh green chilis, hit my palate in an awkward way, that seemed to make the meat taste less good than it should have. They were still fun and easy to eat, but the inner flavors kept them more in the realm of "fun snack" than "great dish" for me. GOOD
Flaming Beef and Shrimp
A new one for me. Beef and shrimp and a few veggies, in a bowl, cooked because some rubbing alcohol was poured on a plate and set afire (away from the table), and the contents of the bowl stirred as it cooks. Certainly dramatic, but I was surprised at how tasty it was. The beef-shrimp combination really worked, in the same way and for the same reason as the pork-shrimp combination works in really good siu mai. There was a tasty sauce that accompanied the dish, but I actually preferred to just eat it plain, with the sauce that naturally rendered in the bowl during the cooking process. VERY GOOD PLUS
Delicious crab, cooked right, and flavored with some wonderful, dark, earthy sauce/seasoning that might have been caramelized shallots. You know crab is really good when you find yourself sucking the sauce off the shell bits. But the crab wasn't even the best part -- that was some dark stuff under the shell that turned out to be eggs, scrambled with the crab roe and a whole pile of that same dark sauce/shallots/whatever. When I am King, my minions will bring me a whole plate of these scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning. Great stuff. EXCELLENT
Sauteed Green Beans
They're just green beans, who cares? Actually, these were some of the best green beans I've ever had, and I never thought I'd say that about a non-Sichuan dish of green beans. Lovely fresh texture, perfectly cooked so that there was no toughness, no dryness, no bitter rawness, no flaccidity, just a perfect juicy bouncy resilient bite throughout. Dark, slightly sweet sauce with caramelized shallot, that really brought out the best qualities of the beans. EXCELLENT
Very soft eggplant, with a sweet sauce, including some chili, and another influence that seemed like, but presumably couldn't be, the numbing quality of Sichuan peppercorns. This dish didnt really work for me -- the sauce seemed to play up the empty, vegetal eggplantiness of the eggplant, and the sweetness seemed frivolous, not buffered enough by the more burly influences that seem necessary with such a dissolute vegetable. Maybe that's evidence that I like eggplant only when it's sufficiently disguised, but if so, it's a thought that never struck me before, which doesn't seem like a very good sign. FAIR
Stir-fried Beef with lemon-salt-pepper sauce
This dish blew some people away. I was very intrigued intellectually by it, but it didnt set off my pleasure receptors. You've got a stir-fry of chewy, flavorful beef, with a fairly sweet sauce. Very ordinary so far, nothing special. Then you take this little bowl of sauce and drizzle it over a piece of beef. Zowie! Suddenly it's like nothing you've ever had before, sharp and alive and reverberating in your head. What's in the bowl? Fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Plenty of salt. Coarse grains of ground pepper. You could probably put just the sauce on your tongue and have most of the experience, or at least make whatever you did next seem interesting. For me it played like a special effect on the nervous system, more than like a complete dish. But some people loved it. GOOD PLUS
Mango with Shave Ice
Pieces of nice, ripe mango, covered with red-and-white shave ice, flavored with -- what? Raspberry? Banana? Anyway, nothing too natural, but it plays up the mango nicely. A refreshing end to the meal, not really worth rating, and I was too full to eat much of it, but it still framed the meal nicely.
So, what's the bottom line? I'd put this place on the high end of neighborhood-restaurant quality, but not at destination-restaurant quality. The service was friendly, and very good. If I lived within a couple of miles, I'd probably go every month or so, or whenever the crab roe started playing on my mind, or during bean season. Living in Petaluma, I don't imagine I'll be afflicted by the need to return. But if I were in the area, and it was mealtime, I'd certainly drop by. And you can be sure I'd order some of those beans.