Tuesday night I had dinner at THE GREEN PAPAYA in Los Gatos for the first time. The dark-wooded interior, paper-topped tables, and light jazz background music (turned up just a notch too loud) evoked more of a California bistro feeling than a Vietnamese restaurant. Peter stood back and suggested that I take care of the ordering. We had
Green papaya salad (about $9) The signature dish here, however, calling it a green papaya salad is a misnomer, as the amount of papaya in the dish was very low. Instead lacy shreds of carrot form the body of this salad and you have to look very closely to spot the finely shredded translucent bits of papaya. When I inquired about the composition of the salad before ordering this dish, I learned that dried shrimp was not part of the ingredients and the kitchen doesnt even have any on hand! Beautifully presented on a wavy white square base of fried rice wrapper, and surrounded by halves of red cherry tomato, the multi-colored shreds of carrot, ripe mango, green papaya, green onion, and cilantro were piled high in the center and topped with chopped peanuts and fried rings of shallots. While there was supposedly fish sauce in the dressing, it was hardly discernable as the balance was tilted toward a fruity sweetness that highlighted the mango flavors. Not traditional, but delicious in its own way and possibly the best carrot salad Ive ever eaten.
Banh khot ($9.50) Described as rice cakes on the menu, these were small cups made of ground rice, baked in a muffinish shape until golden brown and crunchy on the outside and then filled with a plump juicy prawn and chopped scallions. Of course, it was not sprinkled with earthy dried shrimp powder as would be traditional in some households, but it was still my favorite dish. The ground rice was a mix of sticky, chewy partial grains and fully ground lending more textural contrast with the delicate crispness of the exterior. Served with nuoc cham dipping sauce and garnish of shredded red cabbage and carrots, our plate was sans lettuce but similar to the photo below from Saratoga News. The dipping sauce was too sweet and would have been better with a zippier acid balance to define the delicate flavors of the rice cakes.
Shaken beef (about $18) This was recommended by our server and was the most disappointing dish. Not seared or caramelized, the cubes of rib eye beef were not cooked rare as requested, not even medium rare. The cornstarch-thickened sauce had a dullish sweetness (oyster sauce?) and lacked the tartness and/or black pepper notes that can make the best examples of this dish exciting.
Banh xeo ($12.50) This was the heftiest version of the Vietnamese crepe Ive ever seen. Far from the lacy textured, crispy-edged light shell made from rice flour, coconut milk and egg presented on some Vietnamese tables, the crepe here was thicker with again some nearly whole grains of rice as well as ground rice flour. A departure from the sunny yellow hue of tumeric seasoning, the blotches of bright orange in this batter looked like melted cheddar cheese at first glance! The outside was very browned in spots. The stuffing was much more generous with more of the meats and less bean sprout filler. As an interesting twist, in addition to prawns and white meat chicken, the filling includes smoked bacon! The bacon was not browned though and some may not care for the soft fatty pieces. The chunks of chicken were of very high quality (and I detest white meat) with a tender silky texture and not overcooked. The nuoc cham offered was again a bit too sweet and cloying. The menu description said this dish is served with lettuce wrappers, as would be traditional, but our plate came with only one wilted and coarse outer piece of green leaf lettuce and no other fresh herbs. When we requested more, the kitchen gave us more of the same. This detracted from the appeal of the dish, but I still liked it. Peter was less impressed describing it as bland oiliness, due to the fatty film it leaves in the mouth.
Garlic noodles ($5.50) The noodles were presented in a none-too-appetizing colorless heap in a small and deep white bowl. Tasty though, they were softly chewy and well-infused with roasted garlic tones. Somewhat dry and without parmesan cheese, I really enjoyed this version. Also, I found myself nibbling on this between bites of the other things because it was the only preparation that wasnt sweetened.
The wine list was dominated by California selections. We were happy to have our choice of six Sauvignon Blancs, as these are such food-friendly wines. Four were available by the glass, and we chose two to compare and contrast. The 2000 St. Supery Napa Sauvignon Blanc was the darker of the two in hue. Some light wood tones suggest some proportion of the wine was aged in oak or perhaps was barrel-fermented lending more roundness to the wine. In combination with the slight sweetness of food, the alcohol poked through in a warm finish. It was best with the garlic noodles and the beef. The 2000 Shepherd Ridge New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was a better match in general with a lighter body, crisper acidity, and just the suggestion of residual sugar. This was especially good with the salad. Corkage is $15.
In summary, the two appetizers were delicious in their departure from tradition. The two entrees were less successful, and the shaken beef was an outright disappointment. Comparisons to the Slanted Door are inevitable. The spicing and flavorings were similarly toned down here, maybe even more so, to be not quite so foreign to the Western palate. Also the level of sugar in our selection of dishes was more pronounced than expected and out of balance. This is a shame as the bright and refreshing sour/sweet/salty composition of Vietnamese cuisine is one of its main attractions.
I found the shortage of lettuce curious too. At my recent lunch at the Slanted Door, I had noticed that many patrons did not make use of the lettuce wrappers and fresh herb garnishes provided with the plates, presumably either through ignorance or not wanting to eat with their hands. Perhaps the Green Papaya has had the same experience and has opted to forego the traditional accompaniments.
The bill for two apps, two entrees, one side dish and two glasses of wine was $82 with tax and tip. If the bill were about 20%-25% less, Id probably have no complaints. Maybe if we had skipped the beef dish, I would be more satisfied. At this price, the value is hard to find. Yet, if I were in the area, I imagine Id be back to sample some appetizers with a glass of wine before heading to one of the movie theatres nearby.
The Green Papaya [South Bay]
137 No. Santa Cruz Ave.
For dessert we walked over to DOLCE SPAZIO. The high reputation of the gelato made here is well-deserved. While I didnt care for the sample taste of the chocolate liqueur flavor, the amaretto almond was wonderful with liqueurish intensity and some chopped toasted almonds, the hazelnut was more subtle with the pleasant bitterish notes of roasted hazelnut, and the strawberries n cream was fresh with summer berriness. The dense and creamy gelati were served at the ideal temperature where they achieve that sticky, almost elastic texture. On this warm evening, we really enjoyed sitting outside on the back patio.
Dolce Spazio [South Bay]
Gelato Dessert Café Espresso Bar
221 No. Santa Cruz Ave.
In addition, before dinner I strolled a few blocks of downtown and spotted a few things that may be of interest to chowhounds. I dont know if theyve been mentioned before. The two retail shops were already closed for the day, but perhaps others can comment on them.
The CHOCOLATE DREAM BOX (309 No. Santa Cruz Ave.) has a sign indicating that Leonidas Belgian chocolates are sold here, and that a new Leonidas shop has opened in Valley Fair Mall. Also chocolate dipped strawberries can be made to order.
LISAS TEA TREASURES (330 No. Santa Cruz Ave.) is a tea room and gift parlour.
HAWAIIAN PACIFIC GRILL (in the alley way across No. Santa Cruz Ave. from Wells Fargo) looks new and offers plate lunches, grilled fish and other Hawaiian specialties. Only three small tables inside and two outside.